Women in Bible Ministry – Phoebe the Deacon and Presiding Officer

Romans 16:1-2 states, “I recommend to you Phoebe our fellow believer, who is a minister of the assembly in Cenchrea, so that you will admit her into your company, the Lord’s company, in a manner worthy of the people devoted to God, and stand by her in whatever matters she needs you to help in. For indeed she became a presiding officer over many, and over me also!”

Phoebe is a diakonos, “minister”/ “deacon,” and certainly not a “servant.” The standard lexicon Liddell-Scott-Jones testifies that the word means servant or messenger, but means official in a pagan religious guild or temple. In the context of religion, the word meant an attendant or official. The word was adopted into Christian vocabulary to mean a church official, that is, a minister or deacon, as the terms were at first synonymous, “deacon” being the transliteration (putting Greek letters into English letters) of the Greek, and “minister” being the translation.

As the church evolved from the “assembly” of the New Testament and became institutionalized, church positions became more distinct. The first mention of a deacon (as well as the first mention of a monk) in a secular document is dated at 324 A.D. (And note that 1 Timothy 3:1 mentions the episkopos, “guardian,” which became “bishop” after the time of Ignatius in the early second century A.D.) The role of deaconess arose in the third century. Their duties were set down in the Didascalia Apostolorum. The bishop was said to be in God’s image, the deacon was said to be in Christ’s image, the deaconess in the image of the Holy Spirit, and the priest in the Apostles’ image. The bishops designated specific duties to male deacons such as assisting the bishop, particularly in the Eucharist, while permitting deaconesses to minister only to other women. Her duties included visiting female believers and washing women recovering from illness. In the fourth century the Didascalia Apostolorum was replaced by the Apostolic Constitutions which stated, “We do not allow women to teach in the Church.” Deaconesses were now to be chosen from among the virgins and widows only. They were still to assist in the baptism of women and to visit sick women. However, the office was not favored in the west.

This of course was not the case in the New Testament times. The papyri provide evidence demonstrating women were office holders in early Christianity. Pliny records female deacons in the time of Trajan (late first, early second centuries). The woman Alexandra was called an “Over-Deacon” in an inscription from Apollonia in Pontus (Thrace). An inscription on a marble stele states, “Here lies Maria the deacon.” An epitaph from Jerusalem mentions “Sophia, deacon”: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia, deacon, the second Phoebe, who fell asleep in peace on the 21 st of the month of March during the 11 th indiction.” Several inscriptions have female (Christian) deacons as their subject.

In his 1534 Bible translation, Tyndale called Phoebe a “minister of the congregation at Cenchrea.” Centuries earlier, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “For we know that the honorable Paul in one of his letters to Timothy prescribed regarding women deacons,” and Chrysostom commented on 1 Timothy 3:11 thus, “Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he [Paul] introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of deaconesses.”

It is significant that Phoebe was the minister of the church in Cenchrea, a large commercial city. Cenchrea on the Aegean Sea was the eastern port of Corinth. It was one of the two important ports for Corinth, the other being Lekheon on the Ionian Sea. Note that Corinth, a huge and wealthy city, was Greece’s commercial center with trade links all over the ancient world. Its prosperity was due to its position straddling the Isthmus of Corinth with its two ports. All trade from the north of Greece to Sparta and the Peloponnesus passed through Corinth, as did most of the east-west traffic. Ships from Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt docked at Cenchrea.

Phoebe was not just a minister, she was a prostatis, “presiding officer,” “leader and protector.” The term prostatis referred to a person of the front-rank, the chief of a body of people; in general, a ruler, someone who stood in front of the people and protected them. It encompassed the giving of financial or material aid. It was also a term which referred to those who gave protection to people who did not have civil rights. The KJV and RSV incorrectly render prostatis as “helper”, the NIV as “(she has been) a great help”, the NEV as “good friend”.

The use of the word prostatis to describe a woman caused some discomfort as early as the ninth century, and it was altered in some inferior manuscripts to parastasis, “one who stands by/assistant,” perhaps under the influence of the (Latin) Vulgate which incorrectly translated prostatis as the Latin adstitit, “one who stands by/assistant.” Yet the word prostatis was used for women no less than it was for men.

Paul was writing a formal recommendation, which necessitated giving Phoebe’s title on the basis of her leadership. He established her credentials as his emissary to Rome.