Who is this Phoebe?

Recently, the question of women serving as deacons came up at The Gospel Coalition with one article answering “Yes” and another answering “No.” I’m not nearly erudite enough to take on the two writers, both heavy-duty seminary professors at evangelical institutions, but I would like to camp out a little bit on this question. Happily–from my selfish perspective–this question hasn’t been raised in any serious way at my church. If I have any luck, that hornet nest will not be kicked until after I have served out my year as deacon chairman in 2020. Still, a well-informed member of the church ought to be able to offer some reason as to why women are or are not ordained to this role.

PhoebeFor today, I’d like to start with Phoebe. In Romans 16:1, we read of this woman who was, it is assumed, entrusted in carrying Paul’s letter to Rome. Here’s what Paul says:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae.

Phoebe is a servant of the church, and, of course, that word “servant” is diakonos. (If you look in the small Greek print just to the right of Phoebe’s neck in the painting, you’ll see the word printed there.)

So was Phoebe a servant or a Servant, a deacon or a Deacon. In other words, did she simply serve the church or did she hold the office that Paul talks about in 1 Timothy 3? If she holds the office, then we have to believe that Paul approved of female deacons. Let’s consider the possibilities.

I normally appreciate the work of David Guzik, whose notes for the whole Bible are available online. Here’s what he says about the key word:

Bible translators have a habit of translating the ancient Greek word diakonon as “deacon” when it speaks of men and “servant” when it speaks of women.

Is that true? I’m not going to survey every Bible translation, but let’s look at a handful of examples.

  • In the NIV, we find the word translated as “deacon” only five times and three of those are in 1 Timothy 3. The other two are the Phoebe verse, Romans 16:1, and the generic usage in Philippians 1:1.
  • The NASB uses “deacon” five times, adding one in 1 Timothy 3 and omitting the Romans 16:1 usage.
  • The CSB has the exact same five usages as the NASB.
  • The ESV provides five usages and, you guessed it, they are the same.

In reality, far from having a “habit of translating” in a sexist manner, I have yet to find a single case where a man or a collection clearly composed of men is translated as “deacon.” Instead, Tychicus in Ephesians 6:21 and Epaphras in Colossians 1:7 are both described as servants or ministers.

So why should we insist that Phoebe is a deacon rather than a servant? Thomas Schreiner, in the article linked above, reads it this way:

With so little to go on, the decision could go either way, for the word diakonos in Greek may refer to a servant without having the idea of a particular office. Nevertheless, the addition of the words “the church in Cenchreae” suggests an official capacity. Verse 2 supports this understanding, since Phoebe is designated as a “patron” (ESV) or “benefactor” (CSB), which means she regularly helped, perhaps financially, those in need.

Does the mention of the church really suggest an official capacity? I suppose it might, but might those two descriptors be more in parallel: she’s a servant and she’s from the church in Cenchreae? And the patron material from verse two does not seem to prove anything at all. Phoebe certainly could be a deacon, but it doesn’t seem the open-and-shut case that Schreiner suggests.

Sam Storms, in a recent writing, suggests that Phoebe holds the office, but he provides exactly zero support for this position. He quotes the verse and then notes that some think it merely means “servant.” Then he adds this:

Although others hold a different opinion, it seems to me that the primary reason they resist speaking of Phoebe as an office-holder is the prior conviction that the role of deacon is gender specific, that is, it is restricted to males.

Is it possible that some immediately reject Phoebe as a deacon simply because they reject female deacons? Of course. Does that predisposition make Phoebe a deacon? No. If I determine that Starbucks has bad coffee because I don’t like coffee (or because I have a prejudice against the company), the existence of my bias does not make their coffee good, bad, or indifferent.

On the other hand, Guy Waters, writing the counterpart entry to Schreiner, takes the same verse and the question between “servant” and “deacon,” opining:

It is doubtful the word here bears the more precise sense of “deacon.”

Really? Why is it doubtful? Just as those inclined in one direction can offer no definite reason to insist that Phoebe holds an office, those opposed have similarly flimsy evidence.

So what is the bottom line? Who was this Phoebe? Was she a servant or a deacon? The bottom line, I think, is that anyone who claims to know with any degree of certainty is employing smoke and mirrors. The supposed sexism noted by Guzik is non-existent, at least in Bible translations. (But there’s plenty of sexism in the church, so let’s not feel too smug.)

What we can know is that Phoebe played an important role with the church at Cenchreae. She was trusted and productive. She possessed a servant’s heart. Whether she carried ordination is a question we cannot with any certainty answer, but we can with confidence know that she was what local gatherings and the wider church have valued for 2,000 year, a dedicated woman.

And for now, that has to be enough.