Phoebe

Here’s our last clue when thinking about deacons.  At the end of his letter to the Romans, Paul greets a number of people in the church. First of all, at the head of the list is a woman named Phoebe. Rather than greeting her, Paul commends her.

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant[a] 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.”[1]

It is likely that she is commended here because she is the one who has been entrusted with delivering the letter.  This would also explain why Paul asks the church to welcome her and help her. They are to show her hospitality. Phoebe in effect is Paul’s ambassador and the advanced party of his planned mission trip.

It seems that Phoebe was someone with a lot of resources at her disposal and so she was a benefactor to the Gospel. She was able to support a number of Gospel workers as well as Paul.  The word patron suggests a level of standing and responsibility within the church and some believe it likely that she hosted the church at Cenchreae in her home.

Phoebe is described here as a servant of the church. It is from the same Greek word translated here as servant that we get the word deacon. So Phoebe was a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. Now, this still leaves open the question, does this mean that Phoebe holds the official position of “deacon.” Within the church or is Paul simply saying that she is someone who serves that church.

In that respect, this Bible passage does not really add any certainty to our question about whether or not we should have a specific office of deacon and who should be appointed to that role. Therefore, when we talk about deacons, we still have to exercise a level of caution.

However, we can say that there are people who are described as “serving the church” or, if you like, “deaconing”.  Furthermore we can say that this links to the point that as well as those designated as elders, there seems to be a wider range of people who have prominence, responsibility and take a leading role in the life of the church. Some of those appear to have responsibility for practical matters such as finance, hospitality and provision for the poor.

In a future article, we will pull these points together and think about how this applies to the church today.


[1] Romans 16:1-2

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