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Our Sister Phoebe Deaconess of Cenchrea

by Al Maxey

Issue #299 ------- April 29, 2007
A real leader has no need to lead;
he is content to point the way.
Henry Miller {1891-1980}

Our Sister Phoebe
Deaconess of Cenchrea

Confucius [551-479 B.C.], the great Chinese philosopher, once observed in his Analects, "Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs." Genuine leadership is evidenced by those who feel no need to command, but who rather rally others to a cause by their depth of passion, conviction, and courageous example. Lao-Tzu [6th century B.C.], in his classic, immortal work The Way of Life, advised: "Be the chief, but never the lord." Effective leaders are indeed out front, taking the lead, and yet the most efficacious are far more visible than vocal. The apostle Peter urged spiritual shepherds never to be "lords over those entrusted to you," but rather to be "examples to the flock" [1 Peter 5:3]. As the ancient Chinese maxim so profoundly states: "Not the cry, but the flight of the wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow." Without a doubt, this wisdom was powerfully personified in a servant of the church at Cenchrea: a woman by the name of Phoebe.

The totality of our awareness of this illustrious, illustrative servant of God and His people is limited to a mere two verses that appear near the very end of one of Paul's most powerful epistles. Beyond these few words preserved by inspiration we know absolutely nothing of her life on this earth. As the apostle Paul brought his epistle to the Romans to a conclusion, he wrote, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well" [Romans 16:1-2, NASB]. Though this may seem like a rather simple passage, somewhat personal in nature, in which a dear sister in Christ is commended to a distant group of disciples, it is far from it. Indeed, this passage has been the cause of heated debate and division for centuries.

The primary concern, of course, has to do with the nature of this woman's service to the church in Cenchrea, and what that may or may not suggest with respect to the role of women within the One Body of Christ Jesus. For those interested in examining previous articles I have written on various aspects of this challenging issue, please refer to those studies listed under the heading "Role of Women" in my Topical Index. Many biblical scholars, including a good number of highly respected leaders within our own Stone-Campbell Movement, firmly believe Phoebe was a recognized leader of the congregation -- a deaconess. Others, however, almost go into a seizure at the thought. Frankly, there are dynamics at work here that go well beyond a simple exegesis of the text; this is far more about personal comfort zones engendered by centuries of cultural preferences and, yes, even prejudices. Whether we care to admit it or not, our interpretation of Scripture, even by those among us with only the very best of intentions, is influenced by our socio-economic status, cultural and traditional upbringing, educational attainments, and familial and denominational loyalties. You and I may read the exact same passage, both of us doing so with good, honest hearts, truly intent upon perceiving God's will for our lives from the text, and yet our respective, resultant understandings may well be worlds apart. This dramatic disparity of discernment among disciples has been witnessed from the very beginning of our Lord's walk among men, and it certainly is evidenced in the debate over the passage before us.

Phoebe -- a Greek name meaning "pure, bright, radiant" -- was, in the words of the apostle Paul, "our sister," which simply signifies that she was a faithful disciple of our Lord Jesus; a cherished member of the family of Christ; a beloved daughter of the Father, and thus "our sister." Before anything else is said about her in this brief passage, Paul seeks to establish the one fact that supersedes all others, and before which all other considerations considerably pale: Phoebe is a Christian. He also clearly establishes the reality that the parameters of the Father's family are quite broad. Although Phoebe lived in Cenchrea, and Paul was originally from Tarsus, and the saints to whom he was writing lived in Rome, nevertheless she was "our sister." There are no boundaries separating brethren; no walls of exclusion; we are all one in Christ Jesus, who tore down the dividing walls, extending a welcome to all who are willing to come to Him in simple, demonstrative faith. Thus, whether we be slave or free, rich or poor, white collar or blue collar, male or female, Jew or Gentile, liberal or conservative, or 31 different flavors in-between, we are still One Body. We are family. To the saints in Rome, who had never met Phoebe, Paul commends her as "our sister." We need to cherish this love of the brethren, and, where it is absent, we need to recapture it and nurture it. Without that fervent love of the brethren, can we even truly claim to be the children of God?! The apostle John declares that whether we are children of God or children of the devil is conditioned upon our love for one another [1 John 3:10]. Indeed, the one who says he loves God, but does not love his brother, "is a liar" [1 John 4:20].

"The followers of Jesus learned to regard one another as brothers and sisters within the great spiritual family, of which God is the Father, and Christ the elder Brother and Savior. Coming from afar, even in the vast and populous city of Rome, this godly matron would find brethren in Christ, and would be recognized as a sister" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 457]. "St. Paul uses the term 'sister' here and calls Phoebe 'our' sister (i.e., ours and yours) to remind those to whom he would introduce her that all Christians, whether personally acquainted or not, are already members of the same great spiritual family, of which God is Father and Jesus Christ the Elder Brother, and that they only need to be made known to one another to realize their close relationship in mutual love and helpfulness" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, vol. 2, p. 232]. The Lord Jesus Himself laid the solid foundation for this close, intimate spiritual relationship when, after being told that His mother and siblings were there to see Him, He "stretched out His hand toward His disciples, and said, 'Behold, My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother'" [Matthew 12:49-50].
Our knowledge of this precious woman as a person is extremely limited, and is largely speculative in nature. Certain assumptions about Phoebe are generally drawn from these two verses near the end of Paul's letter to the Roman brethren, but, as any good biblical interpreter knows, mere human assumptions can never rise to the level of absolute, objective certainty. Or, to put it another way: inferred "facts" are a far cry from that which is demonstrably factual. For example, the majority of biblical scholars infer that she was most likely a widow. The text also seems to suggest that she was about to make a long journey to another part of the empire, perhaps to transact some business, and that she was traveling unaccompanied (no husband is mentioned) and would thus perhaps require the assistance of the saints in Rome. Such freedom to move about the empire was normally not enjoyed by those married or with children at home. A few widows, however, especially if they had established themselves in some lucrative business (some see Lydia in this category), were known to travel rather extensively. She was also apparently a woman of some financial resources, as is inferred by the terms used to describe her assistance of others in Cenchrea.

For example, Paul says Phoebe "has been a helper of many, and of myself as well" [vs. 2]. The word translated "helper" is the Greek word prostatis, a very rare word found only here in the NT writings, and never found in either the papyri or the Septuagint. This word "means 'patroness' or 'protectress,' suggesting she was a wealthy woman who looked after the needs of less fortunate persons. In Athens the masculine term designated the office of a man who represented people without civic rights. Under Roman law such a patron or patroness could even represent foreigners" [The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1328]. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia concurs, stating that this particular Greek word was "a technical term for a legal representative of a foreigner, which would suggest a person of wealth and status" [vol. 3, p. 853]. Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, in his classic Word Studies from the Greek NT, saw Phoebe as "a woman set over others, a protectress, a patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources" [vol. 1, p. 258]. This word "means a great deal. It seems to suggest one who has been the patroness of the unprotected and despised, one who has come to the aid of ... and fought the battles of those who were oppressed" [Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, p. 231]. Apparently even Paul benefited from her aid on occasion, although no specific incident is ever mentioned. Some speculate a connection between Phoebe's aid to Paul and the statement in Acts 18:18 -- "In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow." It is thought by several scholars that Paul may have become gravely ill, or was facing some dangerous physical or legal challenge, and made an impassioned appeal to God for relief. That relief may have come in the form of Phoebe, and Paul then, in gratitude, fulfilled his vow to God.

"The fact that Phoebe had been a 'helper of many,' constituted the ground of her claim for help on the brethren in Rome; for as we do to others, so others are under obligation to do to us. The probability seems to be that Phoebe was wealthy; hence her ability to be a 'helper of many;' while the fact that no mention is made of her husband, justifies, in a low degree, the conclusion that she had none. She was probably a widow. She was doubtless also a woman of age, for a young woman could hardly have attained the distinction she enjoyed at the time" [Moses E. Lard, Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Romans, p. 453]. She who had so graciously helped others, was now potentially in need of such help herself during her business in Rome, and who more worthy of receiving such aid than those who have extended it?! "This is the lex talionis in its benignant form. Who is such a proper recipient of charity as the man who had done good according to his means? With the merciful does God show Himself merciful. 'Give, and it shall be given unto you!'" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 471].

There has also been some speculation as to the nature of the "matter" [vs. 2] that was necessitating her trip to Rome. Paul employs the Greek word pragma, which was a legal term signifying some "matter of dispute," which could have reference to either a civil or business transaction that was in need of review by some higher authority than existed in Cenchrea. This was the same word used by Paul in 1 Cor. 6:1 when he speaks of brethren having "a matter" of dispute with other brethren that they then take to court before unbelievers. If indeed Phoebe was some recognized legal representative in Cenchrea of the rights of those persons, even foreigners, who were being overlooked or oppressed, then she may have been journeying to Rome on behalf of some case that needed to be appealed to a higher court. Paul urges the saints in Rome to "help her" (literally: "stand alongside of her"] as she deals with this "matter," which has led some scholars to speculate she may have been representing a Christian in some matter before higher authorities. Thus, the support and encouragement of her spiritual family would be all the more important for her. Paul, at the end of his own life, would lament this lack of support from brethren -- "At my first defense no one was alongside of me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood alongside of me, and strengthened me" [2 Tim. 4:16-17].
It is rather evident, therefore, that "our sister" Phoebe was a woman of some prominence in Cenchrea, which was a port city located on the Saronic Gulf about nine miles SE of Corinth. "According to Pausanius the name derives from Cenchreas, son of Poseidon and Peirene (in Greek mythology). During the NT period a temple to Aphrodite lay on one side of the harbor, and there were sanctuaries of Asklepios and Isis on the other, while a bronze image of Poseidon was located on a mole extending into the sea" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 628]. Biblical scholars almost unanimously agree that Phoebe was the person Paul chose to transport to the saints in Rome this epistle in which she is mentioned and commended, which shows even further Paul's great confidence in her as a trusted disciple of Christ. Perhaps his most important theological work was given into the hands of a woman for preservation and delivery. Such speaks highly of Phoebe!

The question that concerns disciples of Christ the most, however, is the nature of Phoebe's relationship to the church in Cenchrea. Obviously, she possessed some degree of respect and authority within the city itself, and perhaps even beyond. But did she possess any such authority within the church? In other words, did she "hold office," as some believe? The basis of this belief, and the many disputes and debates that have arisen from it, is Paul's statement that Phoebe "is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea" [Rom. 16:1, NASB]. What exactly did Paul mean by that term? Notice several other translations of this phrase:

A leader in the church --- CEV

A minister of the congregation --- NWT

Who holds office in the congregation --- NEB

A special helper in the church --- Easy-to-Read Version

A key representative of the church --- The Message

Who is minister of the assembly --- Darby Translation

A ministrant of the assembly --- Young's Literal Translation

A servant of the congregation --- Hugo McCord's Translation

A servant of the church --- NASB, HCSB, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NIV, ASV

A deaconess of the church --- NAB, RSV, Amplified Bible, Williams' NT, J. B. Phillips' Modern Translation
As one can see just from these few versions and translations, there is no small disparity of perception as to the nature of Phoebe's relationship to her fellow believers in the port town of Cenchrea. She is said to be a servant, minister, deaconess, leader, special helper, key representative, and/or office holder. And this diversity of opinion is encountered even more when one begins examining the writings of the biblical scholars and commentators over the past several centuries; views that line up very clearly behind partisan perceptions as to the role of women in the church, and what authority, if any, a woman is believed to possess. Although some struggle greatly with the notion that a woman could ever do much more than "sit silently in the presence of her spiritual superiors (men)" in the assembly, nevertheless it was certainly not unusual for God to use women in very prominent roles among His people, and we find this revealed in both OT and NT historical writings. Athaliah, for example, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, reigned as queen over Judah for six years (2 Kings 11:3; 2 Chron. 22:12). Deborah, who was a prophetess of God, served as a judge over Israel for 40 years (Judges 4:4-5). We find several female prophets of God mentioned -- Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron. 34:22), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). We also see a husband and wife team of prophets -- Isaiah and his wife (Is. 8:3), and of evangelists -- Priscilla and Aquila. Joel 2:28-29 even foresaw a time, during the Christian dispensation, when both "your sons and daughters will prophesy ... and even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days." Thus, it shouldn't overly surprise us to find a woman deacon (Phoebe -- Rom. 16:1-2), a woman apostle (Junia -- Rom. 16:7; see: Reflections #201), and women prophets (Philip's daughters) in the church.

Nevertheless, scholarship is still considerably divided as to Phoebe's actual role in the church at Cenchrea, and the significance of the term Paul used to describe that role. The Greek word in question is diakonos, which may take either a masculine or feminine form depending on the gender of the person thusly described. Phoebe is characterized as a female deacon (or: deaconess). The word itself simply means "servant, minister; one who renders service to or ministers to another." One need not be an "office holder" to render service to another, although there clearly appears to be a specific group within the larger community of believers who have been set apart as special servants ("deacons"), just as there are specific persons set apart from the larger community of believers as "shepherds" [1 Tim. 3; Philp. 1:1]. The question, then, is whether Phoebe (or any woman, for that matter) could ever be considered as part of this set apart group of servants, or whether her service was more generic (in the sense that we are all to be "servants of the church"). There is simply no question that Phoebe served the church in Cenchrea. Certainly, all the members should have been doing so! But, was she recognized by them as a servant-leader in some capacity?

It should probably be noted at this particular juncture in our reflective study of this matter that many disciples of Christ Jesus believe the apostle Paul himself authorized women to serve as appointed special servants in 1 Tim. 3:11. This passage has long been debated. Was he referring to the wives of deacons, or was he in fact referring to the position of a deaconess. There are good arguments on both sides, but the view of most biblical scholars is that Paul had female deacons in mind when he penned that passage. If so, then it would have come as no surprise to anyone in the first century when Paul commended "our sister Phoebe," who is then characterized "a deaconess of the church at Cenchrea." Indeed, would it not be somewhat surprising for him to even mention this fact of her service if all members in Cenchrea were expected to be "servants of the church"? It is perceived as significant by most scholars that Paul mentions she is a "servant," thereby, in their view, setting her service apart from, in some special way, that service which would be expected of all disciples.
Dr. James D. Bales, Professor of Christian Doctrine for a good many years at Harding University, in 1967 wrote a marvelous little book (111 pages) titled "The Deacon and His Work" in which he devoted the entire 7th chapter (pages 73-85) to the topic of deaconesses. I would personally concur with Bro. Bales, who believed Phoebe was most definitely appointed to a position of special service to the congregation of believers in Cenchrea, but that she was not an "office holder." Indeed, this concept of elders, deacons and evangelists being "office holders" is one I oppose quite strongly. Yes, these are special servants who provide special service, but they are not "office holders" in the same sense that one might find in politics or business. Dr. Bales writes, "I am not convinced that there was an office of deaconess in the church, but it is clear that there were female servants of the church. It is not necessary to prove that there was an office of deaconess in order to prove that there were women whom the church selected to do special work for the church. Thus, it is unnecessary to settle the question as to whether technically there is such an office (of deaconess); for surely there is such a work" [p. 79]. Frankly, I believe the church has for too long fallen into the "titles" trap. It's not about what we're called, but rather what we're called to be and to do. We are functionaries, not dignitaries. There are too many "politicians" in the church "running for office;" too many lords, and not nearly enough laborers. These men, and, yes, even women, need to recapture that heart of a servant that is the hallmark of all genuine discipleship and servant-leadership.

In the Apostolic Constitutions, which was "a fourth-century pseudo-Apostolic collection, in 8 books, of independent, though closely related, treatises on Christian discipline, worship, and doctrine, intended to serve as a manual of guidance for the clergy, and to some extent for the laity" [The Catholic Encyclopedia], one will find a great many allusions to deaconesses in the church and the nature of their duties, which predominantly were focused on ministry to women's needs. "The strict separation of the sexes made something like deaconesses necessary for baptism, visiting the women, etc." [Robertson's Word Pictures, e-Sword]. I would refer you to Reflections #239 on the issue of women baptizing. Vincent, in his Word Studies, says that "their duties were to take care of the sick and poor, to minister to martyrs and confessors in prison, to assist at the baptism of women, and to exercise a general supervision over the female church-members" [e-Sword]. Book #3 of the Apostolic Constitutions, for example, reads: "Ordain a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministries toward the women." The historical records of the time clearly depict such functionaries in the early church. A good example of this is found in the letters of Pliny the Younger, whose actual name was Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus [62-115 A.D.], who was a Roman senator, and later the governor of Bithynia and Pontus [109-111 A.D.]. He wrote a series of now famous letters to Trajan, the emperor of the Roman Empire. In one of those many letters he described how he had tortured a couple of Christian women in order to try and discern the exact nature of what it was these "Christians" believed and practiced. Notice the following heart-wrenching statement from the pen of Pliny the Younger: "Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition." There are many other such secular references to this group of women servants in the early church to which Phoebe clearly belonged.

"That in the earliest churches there were deaconesses, to attend to the wants of the female members, there is no good reason to doubt. Indeed, from the relation in which the sexes then stood to each other, something of this sort would seem to have been a necessity" [Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, e-Sword]. John Wesley [1703-1791], the great English evangelist and founder of Methodism, wrote in his Explanatory Notes, "In the apostolic age, some grave and pious women were appointed deaconesses in every church. It was their office, not to teach publicly, but to visit the sick, the women in particular, and to minister to them both in their temporal and spiritual necessities." I find it rather unfortunate that Wesley chose to use the word "office" in his statement, for "Paul is not stressing office but service" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 161].

Moses E. Lard [1818-1880], one of the more renowned leaders within the Stone-Campbell Movement, wrote in his classic commentary on the book of Romans, "I am of the opinion that Phoebe was a deaconess in the official sense of that word. What the special duties were of this order of women it would seem not difficult to conjecture -- their work consisted in serving the sisterhood. Indeed, even in the present day, wherever the necessities of the churches are such as to demand it, then the order of the deaconesses should be re-established. They are often of as much importance to a church as the deacons, if not even more" [p. 452]. "Was Phoebe appointed to the service by the church, or did she assume it of herself? The question is not even material. For whether she assumed the service of her own accord, or was appointed to it, she performed it with the Apostle's sanction. This stamps it as right. If the church appointed her to the service, then other churches may do likewise; for the action of that church, being sanctioned by the Apostle, becomes a precedent" [p. 451].

Over the years, some have criticized Paul for what they perceived to be a low estimate of women in the church. I have actually had women approach me in three different congregations and declare, in the words of one of those women, "Paul was nothing but a male chauvinist pig!" Such castigation simply shows these women had no clue as to the actual teaching of Paul. If anything, Paul was ahead of his time in his defense and elevation of women in the church. A sister in Christ by the name of Lena Rea penned a marvelous book titled "Romans -- From A Woman's Point Of View." In this book she wrote, "By his recommending Phoebe, Paul shows his high esteem for woman's work in the church" [p. 156]. I couldn't agree more! Phoebe was a very special Christian lady, with a very special "heart for service" in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. She was a servant; a deaconess. As a servant-leader in the One Body, her example serves as an enduring tribute to all other women who have served, and continue to serve, their Lord in whatever ministries to which they have been individually called and given ability by the Holy Spirit. I'm sure Paul thanked God many times for his "sister Phoebe." May you and I thank God daily for the Phoebes in the church today. Brothers, without our sisters we would be a pitiful lot indeed. Cherish them and honor them as they so rightly deserve! We have neglected them for too long!

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