Women Whose Ministry & Leadership Paul Affirmed: Phoebe

27 Dec

I am currently studying for my blog on 1 Timothy 2, which is the passage most frequently used to limit women in leadership.  In that chapter we find the only explicit prohibition on Women teachers in the entire Bible.  Yes, I really just said that… the ONLY explicit restriction in all sixty-six books of the Bible.  Part of my premise- with regard to that particular passage- is that it should be read in conjunction with, and in light of, all the passages in which Paul affirms women in leadership.  However, it may be difficult for readers to do that, if they are not familiar with such affirmations in Scripture.  Thus, in preparation for the big “Shi-bang,” we will begin, first, with Romans 16.

In the first 16 verses of this chapter, Paul gives a list of 27 people.  Ten of them are women.  More than one third of the people Paul either wished to greet or commend are female.  In a male dominated culture, that alone is worth mentioning.  However, what is more significant is the way he speaks of these women and the titles he gives them.  Today, we’ll be looking at Phoebe.

PhoebeImage

Phoebe is the first person Paul mentions.  The title she is give varies upon one’s translation.  She is called a “servant” (NASB, CEB, ESV, KJV), “minister” (Darby), “deaconess” (Amplified, RSV,), “leader” (CEV), “helper” (Expanded, NCV, New Life Version), one who “has devoted her services” (Knox Bible), and “deacon” (NIV, NLT, NRSV).  In Greek she is called a diakonos.  Between all of Paul’s letters (at least all those tradition holds as Pauline), he uses diakonos a total of 23 times.  In the KJV- which I use along with Strong’s Lexicon/Bible Dictionary), diakonosis translated as servant ONLY when used in reference to Phoebe.  Three times it is used to refer to a deacon.  The rest are ALL translated at minister.  This is interesting since there is no contextual evidence to suggest “servant” is a more appropriate translation than “minister.”  Granted, newer translations use servant for diakonos much more frequently.  Personally, I feel that diakonos is best translated as servant, minister or deacon (in that order).  Deaconess, no matter how similar, in my humble opinion, is a poor choice because the Greek term is masculine, thus it would be inappropriate to make it feminine in English.  However one chooses to translate this word, it’s essential that we recognize Phoebe was being recognized with a title Paul ascribed to himself.  In 1 Timothy 3 we even see a list of qualifications for anyone who wished to become a deacon.  Clearly, Phoebe was not merely a helper or a good Christian woman.  She was a servant, perhaps even a minister.  Paul even names the church in which she served.  Paul goes on to commend this woman, and calls the church to show her hospitality and to help her in any way she requires, because has provided such help to others, even Paul. 

 

Tradition also holds that Phoebe was the carrier of the letter to the Roman Church.  Thus, Paul was using these verses as a way of introducing her.  Paul’s introduction is also consistent with the way non-biblical authors introduced letter carriers.  The role of letter carrier conveys the level of responsibility Phoebe was entrusted with.  Some historians believe the letter carrier was also the first reader or “lector.”  This would make Phoebe the first expositor of the book of Romans!  While this is somewhat debatable, what is certain is that the letter carrier (even if he/she wasn’t the first reader), was privileged to know the author, as well as the author’s context and intent.  Thus, the letter carrier was the go-to persons for questions concerning the letter.   Here’s a great little article on the issue of letter carrying:  http://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/phoebe-carrier-of-pauls-letter-to-the-roman-christians/

 

There are some who have challenged the notion that Phoebe’s role as deacon equated her with some level of spiritual authority.  They also maintain that Paul’s prohibition on female teachers is transcultural and for all time.  To those people, I ask these questions:  If there is no authority in the office of deacon, then why was Paul so concerned that only appropriate candidates fill that office?  If women were not permitted to speak or teach under any circumstances, why does Paul choose a woman to be the letter carrier and perhaps even expositor?  What do you think?

2 Responses to “Women Whose Ministry & Leadership Paul Affirmed: Phoebe”

  1. Ian December 28, 2012 at 10:58 am #

    Kate, thanks for noting my article. Did you also read what I wrote about 1 Tim 2?

    • katemuhlbaier December 28, 2012 at 5:52 pm #

      Yes! I’ve just read them. Great work. I will definitely be referring to you again during this series. Blessings!

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