Our third woman in this series is Phoebe. Both Priscilla and Junia are clear evidence of women in leadership and mininstry, and Phoebe seems to fit the same pattern. But, I want to begin with a point I made about two weeks back:
Women in the early church arise out of households and function as leaders in that forum — not just in providing hospitality but in creating sacred space wherein they function as leaders and teachers and missionary-apostles and benefactors. Phoebe fits this theme but may well expand it. Do women do these things in your church? Is your church biblical? Or, as it sure seems to be the case that I often see, are women restricted in your church to less than the biblical portrait of what women do?
Here’s the information we have about Phoebe from Romans 16:1-2: “I [Paul] commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [deacon] of the church in Cenchrea. 2 I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.”
Three facts about her:
First, she’s a deacon (diakonon) of the church of Cenchreae. It is fine to translate “deaconness” but I suggest not to. Why? Because in many of our worlds a “deaconness” is a woman who cleans up after communion services or the wife of a deacon. Thus, the term suggests for many a lesser service. In this text the word means “deacon” — she’s a deacon. We cannot be sure here what Paul means by “deacon” in this context. Cf. 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 6:4; Phil 1:1. It could refer to being a Word-servant — someone who teaches the Bible. It must also describe a leadership role: cf. 1 Tim 3:8-13.
Second, Phoebe is traveling to Rome and it seems she is the letter-carrier for the letter to the Romans (cf. Phil 2:25-30; Col 4:7-9).
Third, most importantly perhaps, she is a Benefactor (prostatis). What might this mean? This term could mean “president” but 16:2 clarifies the meaning to mean a “benefactor,” someone with resources that benefit Paul and others. It almost certainly also suggests that she has the resources for some kind of household provision; she had the resources for some financial support; she may have had some political clout.