Phoebe of Cenchreae: a deacon? deaconess? servant?

Paul writes in Rom 16:1-2 NIV – “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon [deaconess? servant?] of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.” The NIV has “deacon”, which decision is the theme of this post.

Why does he mention Phoebe here? I quote from my commentary on Romans from the Comentario Bíblico Contemporáneo:

Phoebe took this letter, a scroll tucked into her luggage, on a two- to three-week sea voyage from Corinth to Rome. Perhaps she had other business to conduct in the capital, or perhaps she went specifically to deliver Paul’s letter. “Give her help” is the technical term for providing whatever support she needed to return home to Cenchreae, one of the two ports of Corinth. Phoebe was a leader of that church. Paul applies to Phoebe the term [diákonos/διάκονος] that he uses for males who were his partners in ministry (Col 1:7; 1Ti 4:6).

Of course Paul honors Phoebe for her ministry in the church. But what is the exact meaning of “Phoebe the diákonos”? There are severable variables to consider.

Linguistic factor: Here we are helped by the concept of “semantic range”. It is the principle that a word does not have only one meaning, but has several meanings, which are determined by context. Other examples where a word has generic usage and can also refer to a specific office: (1) presbuteros can refer to any older man (1 Tim 5:1) or a church office (1 Tim 3:1). Christos can mean the anointed persons (Psalm 105:15); or it can mean the Messianic Anointed One. It is the same with the term diákonos/διάκονος: it can mean “servant” in a general sense (the servants at the wedding feast, John 2:5, 9); or of one who serves Christ regardless of office (Col 1:25; 1 Tim 4:6); and of an office in Phil 1:1 NIV (“To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons”) and in and 1 Tim 3:10 (“They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.”). It all depends on the context.

Gender factor: unlike gendered pairs doulos/doule (male/female slave) or adelphos/adelphe (brother/sister), the noun diákonos always takes second declension endings (usually used for males) but can take the masculine or the feminine definite article “the”. Thus the one form can be masculine or feminine and thus be used for both men and women. The BDAG lexicon states that it is the context that tells us the sex of the person, for example, by using the definite article, adjectives, or relative pronouns; or simply by the context. This means that the woman Phoebe could be called diákonos and would not be ungrammatical or unusual. Some have said that, if a man’s name were found in Rom 16:1-2, then translators would have made the person a “deacon,” not a deaconess or, generically, a (female) servant. This is well worth considering, and a parallel follows closely with Andronicus and Junia in Rom 16:7 – “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles…” It was formerly thought that Junia was actually Junias, a male, and so the NASB 1995 edition translates it thus. However, recent research has confirmed that Junia was a female and that she and Andronicus were apparently husband and wife or perhaps siblings; hence the NASB 2020 has corrected it to Junia. This has nothing to do with gender ideology, by the way, and everything to do with sound exegesis based on solid data. The fact that Junia is now widely considered to be a woman has affected the exegesis of the rest of the verse: are they high regarded by the apostles, or are they highly regarded as apostles, in my view, pioneer evangelists? If Junia was a woman, some have concluded, then she could not have been an apostle! And likewise, some believe that Phoebe – who was definitely a woman – may have been a servant, but not a church deacon! Thus it is not a question of being “politically correct” to raise the possibility of gender bias in our translations of 16:1-2 and 16:7. It explains in part why the ESV (which is committed to a traditionalist view of women in ministry) make Phoebe a “servant” and Junia not an apostle, whereas the NIV (which, in my opinion, tries to correct for gender where the biblical text does not demand it) makes Phoebe a deacon and Junia and Andronicus small-a-apostles. Thus the issue of gender bias in translation is one important consideration, but it is not necessarily a decisive datum.

Historically: the Seven in Acts 6 are not labeled diákonos but their ministry seems to prefigure the diaconate; and Luke uses the verb form diakoneō, which allowed the reader to see this as the historical foundation of the diaconate. The deacon seems to be an office in the congregation (Phil 1:1; 1Tim 3:1-13). In my opinion, Philippians was written from Ephesus a year before Romans, which means that Paul may have already been using the term in an official capacity.

Post-New Testament: Clement of Rome spoke of deacons in AD 96: “preaching both in the country and in the towns, [the apostles] appointed their firstfruits, when they had tested them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons for the future believers.” (1 Clement 42.4). Ignatius in AD 107 spoke constantly of deacons; one example: “You must all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and follow the presbytery as you would the apostles; respect the deacons as the commandment of God.” (Ign. Smyrneans 8.1). Didache says to “appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord” (Did. 15.1). All this to say that the diaconate was a defined office from very early in the post-apostolic church.

Later history: later the term diakónissa/διακόνισσα came into use, which were women who helped in the church, especially in ministry to other women. The earliest reference of the Greek term that I know (thanks to Marg Mowczko) of is from Canon 19 of the Nicene Council. Thesaurus Linguae Graecae has a reference from the 4th century, from Epiphanius, Panarion 3:478 (vol. 2, pp. 639-40): “there is an order of deaconesses in the church. But this is not allowed for the practice of priesthood or any liturgical function…” The deaconess was not a deacon and did not have his authority. If we turn to Latin terminology, we have a very early indirect reference to women deacons/deaconesses in the epistle of Pliny the Younger to Trajan 10.96-97, who writes “I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called ministrae.” Ministrae is not used in the generic sense of “servant”, but is apparently an office of the church. (The Latin Vulgate uses another term, ministerio, meaning “hers is the service/ministry of the church”). Unlike diakonos, ministra is feminine gender and would be used of women: it is not apparent whether this should be translated deacon or deaconess. There is no evidence that deaconesses as such existed in the AD 50s, and the translation “deaconess” in Romans 16 NIV seems forced to me; also see the alternative translation in the footnote on 1 Tim 3:11.

So where does this leave us? Unfortunately, the problem is not totally solved; this is yet one more instance where the Greek does not disperse all our exegetical problems!

Did the office of deacon exist? It is probable (Phil 1:1) but not certain that the office of deacon was practiced at the time of Romans, c. 57; it was definitely an office in the Pastoral Epistles, and throughout the 2nd century. I do not see where women are explicitly excluded from the office of deacon in the New Testament.

Did the office of deaconess exist? There is no evidence that there were “deaconesses” as such in the time of Romans; this office seems to come from the 2nd century and the term is first used in the 4th. Therefore, there is no evidence that Phoebe held a position reserved for women and inferior to the (males-only) diaconate.

Was she a deaconess? Some translate diakonos as servant (KJV, NKJV, ESV, GB, GNB, NIV 1984, NASB), and this is where we might return to our earlier question: if Phoebe were a man’s name, would the term be rendered “deacon”? Some (NJB, RSV) refer to Phoebe as “deaconess,” which on the historical evidence seems to be not an obvious choice.

Was she a deacon? On the other hand, some regard Phoebe as a “deacon”, bearing the same title and, in the absence of contrary evidence, the same responsibilities as her male counterparts (NIV, NLT, NRSV). Colin Kruse, in his Pillar commentary, says that “deacon” is the better translation, since she is called a deacon of a particular church, implying that her service was congregation-specific, that is, that she was not just God’s servant in general. I tend to agree with Kruse, although there is not air-tight evidence that he is correct. Perhaps Craig Keener (Romans, p. 183) says as much as can be said with confidence:It thus seems safest to claim merely that she was a minister of some sort without defining the character of her ministry more specifically.

Yes, but what a ministry it was! Phoebe was already a prominent church leader, long before she brought Romans to the capital. She was probably the first person to read it at a church meeting; and quite possibly she was the one who could answer the doubts people had about Paul’s meaning. Whatever her position in Cenchrea, she was truly a servant of the Word of God.

Not Phoebe, but a portrait of a contemporary of hers from the late first century

ADDED NOTE: Ignatius offers an interesting parallel of a deacon who would carry a message from Philadelphia to Antioch in Syria; clearly the messenger was greatly honored to do so: “it is appropriate for you, as a church of God, to appoint a deacon to go [to Syrian Antioch] on a mission as God’s ambassador, to congratulate them when they have assembled together and to glorify the Name. Blessed in Christ Jesus is the one who will be judged worthy of such ministry, and you yourselves will be glorified.” (Ign. Philadelphians 10.1-2a). Around the same time, Polycarp tells of a man Crescens and his sister who carry a letter from their church in Smyrna to Philippi: “I am writing these things to you via Crescens, whom I recently commended to you and now commend again, for his conduct while with us has been blameless, and I believe that it will be likewise with you. And you will consider his sister to be commended when she comes to you.” (Polycarp to the Philippians 14).

Many thanks to Marg Mowczko for her help on many details; her thesis involved some detailed work on Phoebe. She has many other fine articles on women in the early church, some in Spanish.

“Phoebe of Cenchreae: a deacon? deaconess? servant?” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament exegesis, professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica.

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