I started to write a post about the ever-famous Phoebe, whom most people affirm as a deacon. I figured this post would be quick and simple to write. I knew what I wanted to talk about: first century letter writing and the weight which sat on Paul’s words about Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2.
Well, my post started to get really, really long. The more I researched (about things other than just first century letter writing) the more I realized I couldn’t fit everything into one post. So here’s part one: on translation and the role of deacon.
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.” Romans 16:1
We don’t know much about Phoebe, as Romans 16:1-2 is the only place she is mentioned in the New Testament. Paul makes the reference in the closing of his letter to the Roman church. While the reference may seem short, it is certainly important when given its proper weight and understood in its proper context.
Ah, where to begin…
Well, first…the transliteration for the word describing Phoebe here is the Greek word diakonos, which literally means deacon (and no, not “deaconess” as that word—diakonissa—is not used in this text). Unfortunately, some versions have chosen to use other words in this passage instead of “deacon”… such as “servant” or even in others: “helper.” While “servant” is not an inaccurate translation, as yes, deacons are servants; it fails to show the fullness of what Paul is saying.
Before I get into the logistics, I want to say a quick thing about translations:
Translations are just that…they are translations. Translated by…people…just like you and I with their own biases, traditions, presuppositions, etc. The Greek language is WILDLY different than our own, and as people study the Greek text, they come up with their own version of what Scripture says/means. This is particularly why we have hundreds of English translations. Translating Scripture from Greek to English completely word-for-word is nearly impossible, as there are legitimately NO words for some Greek words, so a lot of translating involves explaining type, like-ness, etc. It’s more of a “defining of a word” than translating it, itself. For those of you who are fluent in Spanish (or any other language), think of how many idioms, phrases, or even specific words in Spanish that just don’t translate literally into English. When trying to explain, you say something to the extent of… “well, it’s sort of LIKE…”
All of that to say, when translators choose specific words over others in their translations…they are not doing so objectively (without bias or presuppositions).
With that in mind, we notice how most English versions of Scripture translate diakonos in Romans 16 concerning Phoebe as “servant,” while these same English versions translate that same word diakonos in other places (i.e. the pastoral letters, Ephesians, Colossians, Corinthians, etc.) when referring to a male as “deacon” or even “minister.”
Of course, when read in Greek it’s the same exact word with absolutely no difference, but when read in an English translation, there are two different words used—giving readers two different ideas of what it means. So naturally, I can’t help but ask: why the inconsistency? Why “servant” for Phoebe, but “deacon” or “minister” elsewhere?
As Arland Hultgren expresses in his commentary on Romans, “Although the term can be translated simply as ‘servant,’ as in some versions of the English Bible, suspicion arises that the translators of those versions could not come to terms with the idea that a woman could possess a title or office comparable to that held elsewhere by persons who were male.”
Another thing to note about diakonos is the instances in which it is used. As I mentioned previously, the word can be seen a few other places in Scripture. What’s important here is the stark difference in the use of it in Romans 16 vs. all of the other passages.
In every other passage besides Romans 16, diakonos is always spoken of in a general “servant-like” role—like Paul referring to himself, Apollos or Timothy as such. In these instances, it is never about a specific congregation, but always about general ministry—evangelism, teaching/preaching of the gospel, co-laboring, etc. (Some can argue that the seven men chosen to focus on the widows in Acts 6 are specific “deacons,” but this is a moot point, as these men were chosen in the moment, for a particular response to solve a temporary situation). The difference between Paul’s general use of diakonos, and the way he uses this word in relation to Phoebe is that in Romans 16, Paul is localizing Phoebe’s position of deacon to a specific congregation—the church in Cenchreae. This suggests that Phoebe was not just a general servant, but a deacon—a servant who held a position at a specific church.
Why is this important?
Well, nowhere in Scripture do we see the position of church pastor or overseer of a church being given to any specific person (except Jesus, of course). Phoebe is THE ONLY person mentioned BY NAME as anyone holding any type of office in a specific church in the New Testament. The closest we get to something similar is John calling himself “the elder.” Even so, nothing in the context of what John is writing insinuates a specific/local church. Phoebe is the only specified person—deacon—named by Paul, holding an office of a particular congregation.
Now, we must always remember something very important when considering the New Testament: it is indeed written in an entirely different time in history. When teaching Scripture, I always try to remind people that (as was so harped on me in seminary) we must honor the context and timing that Scripture was written in. With this in mind, Philip Payne suggests that the letter to the Romans was written before any remaining reference to the office of a local church “overseer.” Thus, when Paul called Phoebe a “deacon” in this letter, it could have very well been the only officially recognized title for a local church leader at that time and/or place. Making Phoebe even more…legit.
Lastly, we can’t ignore the amount of historical evidence that points to women holding leadership positions in the early church. Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia in AD 110 calls two specific women he tortured “ministers.” Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Chrysostom all referred to women holding offices as deacons (leaders) in the early church and preaching the Word of God (all of these before the 4th century). Not to mention women holding these offices were also referred to in the Council of Nicaea and plenty of other ancient documents (more on this in another post).
So in conclusion: 1) translations are TRANSLATIONS and sometimes subjective 2) Phoebe is given a title for a specific, local church, 3) Phoebe is the only person mentioned by name holding a leadership position at a specific, local church, 4) There weren’t many other titles other than “deacon” to choose from for high-leadership roles in the church at the writing of Romans, 5) women holding high positions in the early church was not an uncommon practice according to many early sources/ancient texts.