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Women in Ministry: Three Women 3

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.

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posted April 18, 2007 at 6:49 am

Thank you for building a strong case for women’s leadership role in the early church. Having been in worship situations where women have had eqality in reality as well as theory, I can make several observations: 1. once it becomes natural, all the issues around “woman’s role” melt away. Everyone does what they do and it’s fine. 2. As they are granted equal access to all roles, women become less sex objects and more fellow workers. In part, this might be self-selection, but I have also seen women shed reliance on make-up, hair-coloring and high heels as they enter into these cultures. Ironically, as women are treated as equals, they become less feared and less of threat, not more so, in my observation. 3. A lot of energy gets freed up for building the kingdom of God. I tend to think that if we are really urgent about building the kingdom of God now, as the early church was, we would worry less about who was doing what and more about empowering people to get the job done. I truly believe the early church didn’t have time to worry endlessly about the nonessentials.
I do have one question and you allude to this: I had a priest vehemently deny that the early female deacons could have been any more than servants. He didn’t deny that they were called deacons, but said this had a far different meaning than it does today in the Catholic church, where, of course, only men can serve in that role. How do we know what the term meant? Do we rely solely on the evidence from the Bible that women like Phoebe held leadership? Is there other evidence?

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Scot McKnight

posted April 18, 2007 at 7:14 am

The logic is often this: since women don’t “deacon,” and this woman is called “deacon,” therefore this use of the term must be different.
What we need is patience: we need to see what the NT does say about the term “deacon”; we admit that there are gaps in our knowledge of what “deacon” meant in earliest Christianity; we admit that we don’t know a full profile of “deacon”; we go on the evidence that we do have and I sketched the rudiments of that in the post. They “served” (which is a positive term in Christianity) in a variety of ways — from the rudimentary (washing feet) to theological (teaching the gospel).

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posted April 18, 2007 at 7:40 am

Words – » Blogs in Review – 4/18/07

[…] Scot McKnight ( continues two series: on Women in Ministry this time looking at Phoebe and his series on Love in the Key of Delight with part thirteen, a look at Song of Songs 2:15-17. […]

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posted April 18, 2007 at 7:50 am

Accustomed to biblicizing corporate roles (Pastor=CEO, Deacon=Administrator or 2nd level manager, Evangelist= Advertising and Marketing Manager, Apostle= New Venture/Startup Franchises…and so on) it’s understandable that the early-church role of Deacon is curious and obscured and that a benefactor could be viewed merely as someone with deep pockets and political influence who can fund your building campaign and lobby the government for the right to build a bigger parking lot.
Perhaps looking intently into what characterized ministry in the early church will lead us to fresh perspectives on the ecclesia. I’m grateful for these posts, Scot, that help us think outside the “ususal” boxes.
In the context of the century Phoebe lived in, its not difficult to see the significance of having resources (you would be able to, perhaps, provide a large and safe meeting area for the gathered saints, offer lodging to travelers or the persecuted, send money to those ministering in inhospitable areas, and so on) and the way those resources interfaced with leadership identity. Certainly being a “woman of means” combined with being a woman truly filled with the Holy Spirit of God held great impact in the early church where it was much, much harder to be a disciple of Jesus than it is in America today.

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posted April 18, 2007 at 8:57 am

I agree with Susan’s comments about the “woman of means”. Phoebe was not only significant because she was a deacon but because she was a deacon and because of everything else she did. It’s a shame that she and other women in the New Testament are rarely recongnized for their contributions to the early church.
Women need to be encouraged to stretch and use all their gifts and talents and resources– be it preaching, giving, teaching, hospitality, etc. Instead of telling little girls to be the “Proverbs 31 woman”, we can perhaps, encourage them to also immitate the women who worked with Paul in full knowledge we could have a Phoebe in our midst. Shouldn’t the Church be encouraging the full potential of the gifts of those who walk through her doors? Is that taking this too far or reading into it too much?

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posted April 18, 2007 at 9:14 am

Scot, this series has been such a blessing! It is so frustrating to listen in on debates about what a word means because the way it appears to mean doesn’t mesh with what we believe today, so we go looking for another way to define it.
I’m also so thankful that when I bring up this subject of “women’s roles” and the controversy in some quarters, the men in my class just shake their heads in wonderment.

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John W Frye

posted April 18, 2007 at 9:28 am

Thanks for writing about these 3 significant leaders in the early church. “Is your church biblical?” is a penetrating question in light of these studies.
Diane (#1),
Thanks for painting a brief picture of male-female equality in ministry and its benefit for the kingdom of God.

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James Gregory

posted April 18, 2007 at 9:30 am

Two quick things:
1. No male is ever singled out as a deacon, only Phoebe is. In fact, none of the other leadership terms used in the NT are singled out for a male, except when Peter identifies himself as an elder in one of his epistles. Is it not at least interesting that Phoebe is the only one–and a woman for that matter–to have a leadership title in the NT even though we may not be able to precisely pin down how we ought to understand “deacon” in Romans 16?
2. Letter carriers in the Roman world were expected to read the letter before (in front of) the recipients and then explain it, teach it, and answer questions regarding it. This practice was the norm. Why, then, would it not apply to Phoebe as some have suggested (not here, but elsewhere)?

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Andrew Arndt

posted April 18, 2007 at 9:45 am

I love Krista’s thoughts, especially about the so-called “Proverbs 31 woman” who is often held up as the paragon of the 1950’s Leave it to Beaver female. I am afraid we’ve not really read the text there, nor noticed how shocking it is while the book of Proverbs begins with the admonishment for “sons” to listen to their “father’s” instruction, in the end it is the female who in the end is celebrated as the quintessential Torah-follower, and is thus revered not only by her family but by the city–for not only does she excel in domestic affairs, but her words count for something in the public square: “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful intruction is on her tongue … Give her the reward she has earned and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.”
It amazes me that in the church we stumble over the issue of women in ministry when in point of fact, the Old Testament is replete with examples of undeniably powerful women-leaders in Israel (Miriam, Deborah, Esther), with the intertestamental literature staying almost perfectly in stride (note Judith), and the New Testament barely letting out a hiccup about the matter. If they are gifted, let them serve. The church is always the worse for blunting the grace of God made manifest through individual giftedness.

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Suzanne McCarthy

posted April 18, 2007 at 10:12 am

I would rather not see Phoebe called a “deaconess” since that word did come to exist for an office in the church. However, Phoebe is not called that in Greek, she is called a “deacon”, the same word that Paul uses for himself and is usually translated as “minister”. When a word related to prostatis is used for men, then it is translated as “leaders”.

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Julie Clawson

posted April 18, 2007 at 10:27 am

I have always been amused by the circular arguments that occur around Phoebe. The “she’s a woman, women can’t be deacons. she’s called a deacon, so therefore deacon must mean something other than deacon because women can’t be deacons…” At that point I usually get accused of letting my feminist bias affect my interpretation of the text if I challenge their sexist bias (which of course doesn’t exist).
I really appreciated Diane’s #1 comments. It takes time, but when equality and respect become normal at lot of good things end up happening.

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posted April 18, 2007 at 12:42 pm

Your house church readers are really being polite today. The first sentance of your second paragraph is almost an invitation to get out the soap box.

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Michael Kruse

posted April 18, 2007 at 1:00 pm

#8 James
“2. Letter carriers in the Roman world were expected to read the letter before (in front of) the recipients and then explain it, teach it, and answer questions regarding it. This practice was the norm. Why, then, would it not apply to Phoebe as some have suggested (not here, but elsewhere)?”
Kenneth Bailey takes this on step further. Not only was the messenger to do all you describe but the importance of the message was weighed by status of the messenger. Either Paul didn’t give a rip about what he had written or Phoebe was a woman of considerable authority.

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Michael Kruse

posted April 18, 2007 at 1:06 pm

A side note about Proverbs 31, which has been mentioned. I have seen the cute caricatures that are made out of this passage but let us not surrender it to those caricatures. The woman in the passage has astonishing freedom and authority compared to the surrounding cultures of the time (running a business and investing in real estate all of her own accord.) Let’s redeem the importance of this passage and free it from the 1950s stereotypes read into it.

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Ken Schenck

posted April 18, 2007 at 3:43 pm

Although I suppose most don’t take it as an office, it is interesting to me that Paul refers to Timothy as a diakonos in 1 Timothy 4:6 (assuming it’s literally Paul), the same word used of Phoebe in Rom. 16:1. I suppose the reason people don’t think of it as an office is because in most evangelical reconstructions this would have to be rather late in Paul’s ministry.
If of course 1 Timothy is pseudonymous, then perhaps the reader is supposed to see the fictive setting of 1 Timothy as somewhat earlier in Paul’s ministry? Not an overseer then?

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posted April 18, 2007 at 5:49 pm

Yes Michael! The Proverb 31 woman is no 1950s housewife, unless that woman ran a business.

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James Gregory

posted April 18, 2007 at 7:36 pm

Michael (#13):
Where might I find the info you referenced concerning Kenneth Bailey? I liked it and would like to read more.

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Michael Kruse

posted April 18, 2007 at 11:21 pm

#17 James
Unfortunately, it is not in written form. He makes a comment about this in his DVD series of lectures Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View.
He does have a wonderful pdf document that summarizes the series but he does not mention this particular issue of the messenger when he writes about Phoebe. The document is also called Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View and is a summary of some of the major points in his six part video series. Here are a couple of observations he makes about Phoebe:
“Phoebe is called a deacon (diakonos) not a deaconess. The evidence for the feminine use of the masculine form is slight. Mos likely this masculine ending is used because Phoebe was ordained to a clearly defined ministry, the of deacon diakonos. Thus the formal title appears. Another reason is the Aramaic word is shammash, which is used to describe the High Priest officiating in the temple on the day of atonement (M., Yoma 7:5; B.T. Yoma 47a). But the feminine shammasha means a prostitute. The need for an honourable title would dictate the use of the masculine in a church where a significant number has Aramaic as a part of their linguistic heritage.” (2-3)
“Furthermore, Phoebe is called a prostatis over/to many. This word was applied to the leader of worship in a Graeco-Roman temple as well as to a governor, a chieftain, and the leader of a democracy. Dunn argues for patron/protector, or leader/ruler. A ninth Arabic version translated this phrase ‘qa’ima ‘ala katherin wa ‘alayya’, in authority over many and over myself as well.” (3)

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Michael Kruse

posted April 18, 2007 at 11:27 pm

Hmmm… I see the links are bad so I will try again.
DVD Series:
Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View
pdf article:
Women in the New Testament: A Middle Eastern Cultural View

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