Phoebe: Prominent Servant
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.” (Romans 16:1-2 ESV)
Paul’s epistle to the Romans contains references to several women. The concluding chapter of Romans includes an unusually large list of people. The likely reason is that Paul had not planted or even visited the church before. He wanted to establish that he knew a significant number of individuals who were now members of the Roman congregation. In this way, he hoped to solicit the church’s support for his mission to Spain (Rom 15:24). This post discusses Phoebe, a prominent woman in the early church who served as letter-carrier, servant, and patroness.
Phoebe: Letter-Carrier to a Prominent Church
Phoebe is the first woman mentioned in the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans (Rom 16:1-2). The apostle identifies her as “our sister” (a fellow Christian) and “a servant (diakonos) of the church in Cenchreae.” Paul commends Phoebe to the Roman church, using the technical expression for introducing a friend to other acquaintances. He asks believers in Rome to give this woman any help she might need. Again, he uses the common expression for a letter of recommendation, “in whatever affair she may need [you or your help].”
The reason for Paul’s request is that the woman so commended “has been a great help (prostatis) to many people.” This may refer to the hospitality extended to Paul when visiting Cenchrea during his three-month stay in Corinth (cf. Acts 20:2-3). In the present instance, Phoebe may have been the bearer of Paul’s letter to Rome. This would explain why Paul mentions her first in his list of greetings at the end of Romans.
Phoebe: Deaconess in the Church
The designation diakonos may be a generic reference to this woman’s ministry as a “servant” (cf., e.g., 2 Cor 3:6; 11:23; Eph 6:21; Col 1:7; 4:7). More likely, as Stephen Clark contends, Phoebe served as a deaconess (cf. 1 Tim 3:11). Evidence for this is “the official-sounding nature of the phrase by which Paul identifies her” (a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea), the use of the term diakonos, and perhaps also the conjoined term prostatis.
As commonly acknowledged, the early church set deacons apart for practical service to the needy (cf. Phil 1:1; Titus 1:9; 1 Tim 3:8-13). They were to be of proven Christian character but, unlike overseers, not required to be able to teach (cf. 1 Tim 3:2 with 1 Tim 3:8-10, 12-13). Neither were they to participate in the governing of the church (cf. 1 Tim 2:12; 5:17). Werner Neuer maintains that the office of deaconess “certainly did not involve public proclamation of the word, teaching, or leading the church. Perhaps it involved serving the congregation, by bringing material help to the needy (Rom 16:2), in serving women, the sick, and strangers.”
Phoebe a Prominent Patroness in the Church
As a wealthy woman, a “benefactress” or “patroness” (prostatis, the feminine form of prostatēs), Phoebe would have used her financial means to come “to the aid of others, especially foreigners, by providing housing and financial aid and by representing their interests before local authorities” (Douglas Moo). This would have been a needed ministry in a busy seaport such as Cenchreae. As Moo concludes, “Phoebe, then, was probably a woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the services of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and support.”
However, this does not mean, as is alleged with some frequency, that patronesses were leaders of houses. Moreover, to call her “president” or “leader” of the church at Cenchreae goes beyond the evidence. Also unwarranted is the claim that “Phoebe held a position of considerable responsibility, prominence, and authority in her congregation” (R. R. Schulz).
Who Was Phoebe?
Phoebe was a prominent woman in the early church. She was a dedicated female follower of Christ serving as a letter-carrier, deaconess, and patroness. There is good reason to believe that she actually served as a non-teaching deaconess who generously used her resources to support Christians. It is inspiring to see a woman such as Phoebe, entrusted with valuable tasks and fully integrated in the Christian community. Participation in these ways can be a joy and responsibility for women called to these types of service-oriented ministries.
Note: This post is adapted from an essay by Andreas Kostenberger, “Women in the Pauline Mission,” in The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission (IVP, 2001). See also the related post, “Can Women Be Deacons?”