Session 11 - Phoebe and the Role of Women as Deaconesses in the Church
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of
the church in Cenchrea. 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. Romans 16:1, 2
- A Brief Historical Review.
- Three groups of women during the post-New Testament period
were thought to be recognized in special categories the virgins,
widows and deaconesses (we dont know this for certain as references
to these groups of women in the post-New Testament writings are rare.)
Virgins probably were not organized but consisted of younger women who
dedicated themselves to chastity, asceticism and service. Women were considered
of great value to the church if they were or had been married and were
mothers. (I Timothy 3: 11 13) Widows were almost certainly organized
(enrolled) and took on specific services (I Timothy 5:9, 10). Deaconesses
most likely worked hand in hand with the male ministers yet focused on
working with females (given the social distance between men and women
in society at that time). They frequently must have been the wives of
deacons (and perhaps other church leaders) but it is not clear that this
was a necessity. Deaconesses specifically assisted in the teaching and
baptism of women (for women, according to some sources, were often baptized
in the nude). They generally did not teach the men. From reading the early
church fathers, however, it is not always easy to separate widows and
deaconesses yet the recognition of these women for a special ministry
is almost certain.
- Alexander Campbell believed that deaconesses were appointed in the
New Testament church, yet he did not push their appointment during the
early Restoration movement. From Ro. 16:1 as well as from I Tm.
3:11 it appears that females were constituted deaconesses in the primitive
church. Duties to females , as well as to males, demand this. (Order
The Millennial Harbinger, 1835)
- Robert Milligan, a 19th century leader of the restoration movement,
assumed the work of deaconesses though this work did not extend to a teaching
ministry. The Diaconate of the primitive Church was not confined
to male members. Deaconesses were also appointed to attend to the wants
of the sick and the needy, especially of their own sex. (Of
Deacons, The Millennial Harbinger, 1855)
- Other supporters of deaconesses included E.G. Sewell (1893), Hayden
(1894) who viewed deaconesses as wives of deacons, G.C. Brewer who lent
tacit support, J. D. Thomas, and C. R. Nichol. Restoration leaders who
did not support the office of deaconess included David Lipscomb, Gus Nichols,
and Burton Coffman.
- Despite the widely varying opinions regarding the appointment of deaconesses
in the New Testament church, few churches in the Restoration movement
have actually appointed deaconesses.
- Romans 16:1, 2, 7.
- These two short verses (16:1, 2) have been the center of the debate
over whether women were appointed officially as deaconesses during
New Testament times.
- Phoebe is referred to as both diakonos and as a patroness or protectoress.
- Many argue, including lexiconographers, that the term diakonos
is used in the New Testament both in a general (e.g. Matthew 22:13)
and the specific sense as a church official (I Timothy 3:8). The term
used is the same and only the interpretation of the context assists
in making this distinction.
- In the secular world, the diakonos was used to describe various
types of service, such as messengers, bakers and even statesmen.
- On the one hand some would argue that Paul often uses diakonos
in the general sense of servant or minister. (I Corinthians 3:5 and
II Corinthians 3:6) He uses the term in a general sense in Romans
- These women could not be deacons in the special sense
because one qualification of a deacon is that he be the husband
of one wife and a woman clearly cannot be the husband of one wife.
- These women clearly could have carried out many of the functions
of deacons (that is, servants) but this does not necessitate that
they be formally recognized as deacons (hold an official office).
Their service would probably have been service to other women
(see II, A, 4, d below).
- Not all parts of the body can be the head (that is, hold a
position of spiritual leadership), yet they are equally valuable
parts of the body. (I Corinthians 12:22)
- We should be more concerned with the work of a servant than
the official role of a servant.
- Romans 16:1 is not a passage to which we should look for doctrinal
guidance. (It is a theologically insignificant postscript.) Rather
Paul is giving honor to whom honor is due. The women in Romans
16 were fellow workers, no more and no less.
- On the other hand, some would argue that Paul appears to be using
the term diakonos in the special sense in Romans 16:1.
- She is specifically noted to be a diakonos of the
church in Cenchrea (unlike Pauls use of the term diakonos
in referring to Tychikos [a dear brother and faithful servant]
in Ephesians 6:21). In addition, if she had simply been singled
out for her service, she probably would have been considered one
of the sisters, such as Mary in 16:6.
- Phoebe was a leader of the church at Cenchrea because of her
status and labor for the entire church, not just her labor for
women. Phoebes actions were not gender specific.
- It is not at all clear whether Phoebe (or male deacons for
that matter) were officially appointed or simply recognized by
this special designation if they fulfilled a special service (unlike
the specific appointment of elders). The term diakonos is not
used in Acts 6. (See below.)
- The use of diakonos in Romans 16:1 cannot be distinguished
from its use in Philippians 1:1.
- The work of the deaconess was not limited to women. (Actually,
if one accepts that women were appointed in the New Testament
church as deaconesses, there is no direct evidence in scripture
regarding whether their work was limited to women or not.)
- Phoebe is also described as a prostatis (protectoress or patroness).
Romans 16:1 is the only time this word is used in the New Testament
in the feminine form. The use of the word is of only indirect significance
to the question of whether women served as official deaconesses in
the New Testament yet is important to consider.
- The word in its various forms could mean both one
who rules or leads (I Thessalonians 5:12) as well as one who cares
for or gives aid to (Romans 12:8). The evidence for the word in
Romans 16:1 probably leans toward personal care in this passage
rather than a governing officer.
- She probably was a woman of wealth and some influence.
- She may have been a widow (her husband is not mentioned) and
therefore was a property owner and patron of the church in Cenchrea.
- She had served Paul (possibly supporting him financially).
- Her role as a patron (rather than manager) parallels her work
as a servant and possible role as a deaconess.
- Junia (Junias), an interlude.
- Almost all commentators agree that Junias in Romans
16:7 was a female and the proper translation is Junia. She very well
may have been a relative of Andronicus (wife or sister). Early Christian
writers unanimously took the name to be feminine (e.g. Origen).
- The passage could read that Junia was an apostle or was recognized
as outstanding by the apostles.
- The term apostle or apostolos could mean one who had
directly been sent by Christ (such as the twelve and Paul) or others
specifically sent out as evangelists (Barnabas in Acts 14:14). It
is clearly in the latter sense that Junia is being recognized.
- The best rendering is probably that Junia was a fellow evangelist
(a messenger of the word) with Paul. She suffered with Paul in the
role of evangelist. Just as Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia
worked as a team. (During New Testament times it probably would have
been extremely difficult for a woman to move about alone as an evangelist
though she may well have served in this role near her home.
- I Timothy 3:11 13.
- Did Paul provide special instructions for women as deacons?
If so, they are found in I Timothy 3:11 13.
- The Greek term (derived from gyne and translated wife or woman) probably
refers to either wives of deacons or deaconesses themselves. (A less likely
interpretation is that the passage refers to women in general.)
- On the view that Paul is referring to the wives of deacons:
- The argument is made that Paul would not sandwich qualifications
for deaconesses (3:11) between the qualifications for deacons (3:8
10 and 3:12. 13).
- In addition, why didnt Paul simply use the term diakonos
to refer to the women?
- On the view that Paul is referring to deaconesses:
- The argument is made that Paul would not have given qualifications
for the wives of deacons but not for the wives of bishops (elders).
- The term diakonos, used in 3:8, covers the entire passage (3:8
- Verses 3:12, 13 may have been an afterthought thus
explaining the structure of the passage.
- That the office of deacon (as opposed to simply being recognized as
a servant) was recognized is clear from this passage (3:10). Nevertheless,
it is uncertain whether there was a formal appointment (ordination) of
deacons or whether deacons (and deaconesses) served well and after a time
gain the recognition by the church (3:13). If the latter is true, then
the distinction between male and female deacons is much less clear (neither
serve in a position of authority) and the possibility of female deacons
(deaconesses) becomes more likely.
- One difficulty in interpreting Phoebe (and therefore women)
as diakonos resides in the appointment and role of deacons in the New
Testament (a position which is not as clear as the role of bishop/elder).
- The work of a diakonos, that is a servant, is unambiguous in the New
Testament -- work that was highly valued. The emphasis upon servanthood
is equally applicable to men and women.
- The distinction between widows who had devoted themselves to the work
of the church and deaconesses (if one accepts that women filled this role
in the New Testament) is not entirely clear. Their work would have been
- Though women clearly worked hand in hand with men in New Testament
times (Romans 16:3) and women taught men in private settings (Priscilla
and Apollos), there is no indication that, if one accepts a more official
role for some women as deaconesses, deaconesses worked equally in service
of men and women. Rather the role of a deaconess was probably more as
that of a servant to women who were not accessible to men in Greco-Roman
- Women have never been widely recognized as deacons in the Restoration
movement. Nevertheless, many Restoration leaders believed that key women
servants in congregations could (and should) be appointed as deaconesses.
- There is nothing inherent in scripture or in the history of the church
which suggests that, if women are appointed as deaconesses, they hold
authority over men.
- There is nothing inherent in scripture which suggests that women evangelists
and servants did not work hand in hand with men during New Testament times
despite societal barriers.
- Sandifer JS: Deacons: Male and Female. A Study for Churches of Christ.
Columbus, GA, Brentwood Christian Press, 1989.
- Blackburn BL: The identity of the women in I Tim. 3:11, in
Oshurn CD (ed): Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity. Volume I. Joplin,
MO, College Press, 1993, pp. 303 - 319