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Topic 19: Deaconess or Deacon?


Romans 16:1-2 in the RSV is translated as follows: [1] I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, [2] that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.

The Commission on Theology and Church Relations in its September 1985 paper, “Women in the Church,” relegate Phoebe to assisting the apostles “in their material requirements.”

◆ “They want to do for Phoebe what she has done for the apostle and others — assist them in their material requirements.  Phoebe’s ministry, then, like that of Steffanas and his household, was to assist the saints” (CTCR-WIC, page 11).

Our point here is that Phoebe holds a specific office, that of deacon; this is more than simply assisting in the material support of the apostles.

In Romans 6:1 Paul refers to Phoebe as a diakonos (“deacon” diakonon, masc.) and in 6:2 Paul calls her a prostatis (benefactor or patron)  This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman is specifically referred to with these two distinctions. The clearest NT identification of an individual with titles associated with local church leadership is not a man at all, but a woman. Paul introduces Phoebe as his emissary to the church in Rome and, because they are not acquainted with her, Paul provides them with her credentials.

When Phoebe is termed a diakonos (“deacon”) does this mean that she is one who provided only material support for leaders in the church, or was she herself a leader who also shared the Gospel in more pastoral situations?

[1] First, understand that New Testament versions have an interesting history as to how the word diakonos and its cognates have been translated.

[a] In most Bible translations, diakonos is translated as “deacon” only in 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12 and Philippians 1:1.  All other occurrences of this word are translated either “servant” or “minister.” The verb form of the word, diakoneo, is translated most often as “to serve” or “to minister.” The same goes for the word diakonia, translated as “service” or “ministry.”

[b] When the words diakonos, diakoneo or diakonia are used in the writings of Paul, major versions consistently translate diakonos as “minister” when the word is used in connection to a male person.

1 Cor. 3:5: Paul and Apollos are “ministers” (King James Version, New King James Version) or   “servants”     (English Standard Version, New Living Translation, New Revised Standard Version, New  American Standard Bible, New International Version).

Eph. 3:7: Paul is a “minister” (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) or a “servant” (NRSV, NIV, NLT).

Col 1:23 and 1:25: Paul serves also a “minister” (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV) or a “servant” (NRSV, NIV, NLT).

Eph. 6:21: Tychicus is a “minister” (KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NASB, ESV) or a “servant” (NIV).

Col. 4:7: Tychicus is referred to as a “minister” (KJV, NKJV, NRSV, NIV, ESV) or a “servant” (NASB).

Col. 1:7: Epaphras is a “minister” (KJV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, ESV) or a “servant” (NASB, NLT).

Col. 4:7: Archippus is active in “ministry” (diakonia) (KJV, NKJV, NASB, ESV).

Philm 13: Onesimus is doing “ministry” (diakoneo) (KJV, NKJV, NASB) or “service” (NRSV, ESV) for Paul.

Older translations such as William Tyndale’s New Testament (1534) and the Geneva Bible (1560) throughout translated diakonos when it referred to all of Paul’s co-workers as “ministers” and also in Rom.16:1 where diakonos refers to Phoebe.

[c] When it comes to Rom. 16:1, the only reference where the word diakonos is used in connection with a female person in Paul’s writings, the word is never translated “minister” in these translations. But in these same translations Phoebe is a “servant” or a “deacon” (NRSV, NLT).  One would ask the question why this is so, concluding that a gender bias is at work in translating the word diakonos. What has influenced our understanding of this function or ministry through the centuries has been the many translations we have used.

[2] So, secondly, we ask what might it mean that Phoebe is called a diakonos?

[a] There are seven references in the New Testament texts which link the masculine noun diakonos to an individual’s name:

1 Cor. 3:5 — Paul and Apollos (“What is Apollos…Paul? Diakonoi through whom you came to believe)

Eph. 6:21 – Tychicus (“…a faithful diakonos in the Lord…to encourage your hearts”)

Col. 1:7 – Epaphras (“You have heard of this hope…from E….a faithful diakonos of Christ…”)

Col. 1:23 – Paul (“the good news…of which I, Paul, became a diakonos”)

Col. 4:7 – Tychicus (“beloved brother, a faithful diakonos…might encourage the hearts…”)

1 Tim. 4:6 – Timothy  (“if you put these instructions before the brothers and sisters, you will be a good                                 diakonos of Christ Jesus”)

The seventh reference is Rom. 16:1 – Phoebe where Paul describes her as a diakonos.

[b] The descriptive phrases added by the epistle writers to the individual described as diakonos in the first six references indicate ministries of sharing/preaching the gospel.

[c] Even though Phoebe is a woman, note that in Rom.16:1 Paul chooses a masculine noun, diakonos, to identify her.   This suggests that the word is used in a technical sense of an established and recognized position defined by this word apart from gender. This form of ministry is gender inclusive, articulating no special separate role for women, no function limited only to men. Phoebe would function in the ways of ministry as do men to whom the term is applied. Had Paul wanted to make a gender distinction or limitation he could have chosen to use other terms such as doulos or oiketes. 

[d] By calling Phoebe diakonos Paul implies she has the same type of position as that of the church leaders in 1 Timothy 3:8-10, 12. 1Timothy 3:11 also seems to imply that Timothy also had women diakonoi in his churches (see below).

[e] The term diakonos (deacon) is used to identify other leaders like Paul, Timothy, Apollos, and Tychicus. The term is also applied to Christ (Romans 15:8). Leaders like deacons and overseers were selected because of their moral character. The qualities of a deacon (1Timothy 3:8-10) are nearly identical to those of an overseer (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Both deacons and overseers were to manage their families. They were to be charitable and self-controlled.

[f] Phoebe served the ecclesia, having “an official function in the congregation at Cenchreae” (Black, Romans, pg. 178).  English translations add the indefinite article “a” before “deacon” although the Greek does not have the indefinite article. Without the “a” the Greek states that Phoebe is “deacon of the church in Cenchreae,” adding to the implication of leadership.  She functions, then, in the same capacity that Paul, Apollos, Tychicus, Epaphras, Archippus, and Onesimus did elsewhere. It is possible that not all churches had women diakonoi, but some churches like Cenchreae did.

[g] Stephen and Philip (Acts 6:8, 8:5), chosen (Acts 6:5) to implement the daily diakonia (6:1), also preached the gospel (6:8 ff.) and baptized new converts (8:38).  Paul speaks of his apostolic work as diakonia (Rom. 11:13, 1 Corinthians 3:5, 2 Corinthians 3:6, Ephesians 3:7, 1 Thessalonians 3:2). “Both the participle and the genitive [In Romans 1:16] indicate that Phoebe occupied an official position by appointment of the church which was similar to that of the seven deacons who were appointed in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-6)” (Lenksi, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, pg. 899).

[h] “Romans 16:1-2 is clearly a statement of recommendation on Phoebe’s behalf.  Paul trusts her to deliver his letter to the church in Rome as his emissary. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe” – and then he underlines her qualification by adding her position – “a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.  ”Since she bears Paul’s letter, she may be called upon to explain anything ambiguous in the letter when the Romans read it, and Paul wishes them to understand that she is indeed qualified to explain this writing, his most theological letter.  He argues the point by citing her church offices (Keener, Paul, Women and Wives, pg. 238). She would be the obvious person for the Romans to ask about any questions they had on hearing Romans read to them and “so is properly regarded as the first expositor of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans”. This implies a teaching function for Phoebe.

Richard Gahl adds these pertinent comments: “Permit me to expand upon the information in 2h.  There is no question in my mind that Phoebe carried the letter from Paul to the house churches in Rome.  The encouragement to receive her with a gracious hospitality was certainly how a group would welcome an honored guest.

“Ben Witherington III (Early Christian Rhetoric , p.3) explains the responsibilities of one who carried correspondence from a person like Paul. ‘These documents would not be handled to just anyone.  From what we can tell, Paul expected one of his co-workers such as Timothy, Titus or Phoebe to go and orally deliver the contents in a rhetorically effective manner.  This would have been almost a necessity since the document would come without division of words or punctuation and so only someone skilled in reading such seamless prose; indeed, one who already knew the contents of the document could place the emphasis in the right places so as to effectively communicate the message.’ 

“Paul’s note regarding the role of Titus in 2 Corinthians 8:22-24 likely describes what the carrier of his letters were to do.  Titus was not just one of a group to chaperone the offerings of the Corinthians to Jerusalem.  Just as Phoebe, he would be able to answer questions about Paul’s message so that it would be clearly understood.

Richard Gahl concludes: “Over thirty years ago our family visited the British Museum in London.  They still remind me of my excitement upon stumbling upon the Codex Sinaiticus, a very early and important manuscript of the New Testament. I still remember the jumble of letters on the displayed page – all capitals, no spaces between words, no punctuation, no paragraphs.  Now I understand how a Phoebe or Titus were so necessary for the communication process in a community where Witherington estimates that only 10% of the population could read.”

[i] “Since Romans was written before any surviving reference to the office of a local church ‘overseer,’ ‘deacon’ may have been the only officially recognized title for a local church leader at that time and/or place” (Payne,

[j] In the Didache, diakonoi were those who assisted with the Eucharist. In a Syrian inscription, the term “deacon” is applied to the equivalent of a synagogue leader.  “…in later times those who held this synagogue office were required to be knowledgeable in Scriptures…regular teachers sometimes filled the post” (Keener, Paul, Women and Wives, pg.239).

[k] The tradition of female deacons continued throughout the early centuries, as noted both by the archaeological evidence and also in Christian literature preserved from this period. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 C.E.), Origen (185-242 C.E.), John Chrysostom (347- 407 C.E.), and Egeria (a fifth century pilgrim) refer to female deacons without reservation.

[l] Even if in the New Testament no women were identified by name as elders, overseers, or pastors, and many men were, this would not logically exclude women from those leadership positions any more than the actual lack of Gentile men identified by name as elders, overseers, or pastors in the NT excludes Gentile men from those leadership positions. A diakonos functioned as a minister of the gospel, of Christ, in his or her faith community.

 [3] A third consideration is whether Paul designates Phoebe a “leader” or simply “great help.”

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a prostatis of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:1-2).

[a] Not only does Paul refer to Phoebe as a dikanos, but he also esteems her as a prostatis. This is the only verse in the New Testament in which the word prostatis occurs.

[b] The word prostatis literally means “one standing out in front.” It is a derivative of the Greek word proistemi which includes in its meaning “exercise a position of leadership, rule, direct, be at the head of.” Earlier, In Romans 12:8 (“Let the one in leadership (o proistamenos) govern diligently,” the leader, in diligence”), we see the participial form of this word, again, to imply leadership. The verb form of prostatis is found also in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, where Paul refers to those who “labor over” and have “charge over” (proistamenous). Prostatis is also in 1Timothy 5:17 (“let the elders who rule…”).  Used in relation to the family, it means “ruling one’s household” (1 Tim 3:4, 5, 12).  It is a word which, according to Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, means “one who presides” or, here, “a woman who is set over others.” The word Paul chose to describe Phoebe (prostasis) always elsewhere refers to leadership.

[c] The Greek verb translated as “help [her]” (parastete from pararistemi, “I help,” which combines para = “along side” and istemi = “I stand”) is almost opposite in meaning to the word describing Phoebe as a prostatis “one who leads,” which combines pro = “in rank before” and istemi = “I stand” (           ).

Paul’s logic is “Help her in whatever matter she has need, because she is a leader of many, including myself also.” It is natural that Paul, who calls all believers to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21) should himself submit to the local leadership in churches he visited. If Paul had intended to say simply that Phoebe had “helped” others, it would have been natural for him to repeat pararistemi to make his reason parallel his request ( LSJ, 1526).

[d] “The word is used of office-bearers in a heathen religious association” (Moulton-Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated from the Papyri and Non-literary Sources, pg. 551).  “The masc. form of the word was used by the Romans for the legal representative of a foreigner.  In Jewish communities it meant the legal representative or wealthy patron. Here it indicates the personal help given to Paul” (Linguistic Key to the New Testament Greek, pg. 383). “In Jewish communities prostatis means “the legal representative or wealthy patron” (Sandy and Headlam, Romans, pg. 417). “The word prostatis conveys leadership, which probably entailed ‘spiritual oversight’” (Payne, Man and Woman: One in Christ, pg. 63).

[e] The NRSV translates this as “she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”

[f] If by prostatis Paul identifies a position in the community of faith, then he  describes Phoebe using two titles for a church office that may have been equivalent to the later-documented titles “overseer,” “elder,” and “pastor,” someone with position and authority within the faith community, someone who does much more than just assist “in their material requirements.”

[g] “In the writings of the early church Fathers, the masculine form of prostatis is used for the one who presided over communion” (Kroeger, Women Elders…Sinners or Servants?, pg.9).

[4] And fourthly, of further significance for this issue is 1 Timothy 3:11.

[a] 1 Timothy 3 is a discussion of the qualifications for church leaders, and here we find in verse 11 the phrase gynaikas hosautos semnas, “women likewise must be…”  Who, then, are the “women”? The wives of the deacons or deacons themselves?

[b] Gunaikos is also found in verse 2 (bishops are to be the “husband of one wife”) and verse12 (where deacons are also to be “husband of one wife”).  Here gunaikos clearly means wife.

[c] The word housautos (“likewise”)” occurs in verse 8 and is used there to introduce a distinct but related subject (deacons versus overseers). When occurring in verse 11 it can also be understood to introduce a distinct but related subject (women deacons verses male deacons).

[d] The absence of the word “their” in verse 11 would seem to imply that the women in view are not the wives of deacons but rather women who serve in the same capacity as the men. The text is not “their women/wives” but “women.”  A possessive pronoun would be required to signify “wives.”

[e] The list of qualifications for the women (“serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things”) although abbreviated (only one verse), is similar to those for the male deacons (vss. 8-10, 12-13).

[f] The silence concerning any qualifications for the overseer’s (episcopa) wife (3:1-7) and the male deacons’ wives (3:12-13) argues against this being understood as referring to qualifications for deacons’ wives.

[g] 1Timothy 5:3-16 and Titus 2:3-5 give instruction to women and how they are to relate to other women in the church, as well as their own families. Instructions are given to men here as well.  Whether these instructions suggest some sort of organized women to women ministry is not clear.  Diakonia and related verb forms are not used here.  This suggests a different understanding of women’s roles here as compared to 3:8 which women are discussed in the conversation about bishops and deacons.’’’

Paul commends “our sister Phoebe” to the church in Rome and recites her qualifications as “deacon of the church at Cenchreae” and “a benefactor of many and of myself as well” in order that she is recognized for her role and service and be accepted as his representative. He does not have to defend Phoebe’s participation in this way or argue that the church in Rome must recognize a woman’s role in doing this service. This suggests that such service by women within the Christian communities and in offices more generally occupied by men was not an issue then as it might be today.