Church Views · Her Views

phoebe’s true significance

In the discussion about women’s roles in the church, Phoebe can be a difficult character for complementarians to face. In Romans 16:1, Paul introduces her with, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church…” The problem is immediately apparent: a woman as deacon – who is a leader in the church. The debate typically involves downplaying her role of deacon as somehow less than elders, though all are clearly designated as overseers of the church.

So Paul is commending Phoebe, a woman who is an overseer of the church. Wait… is this the same Paul who says he doesn’t permit women to teach, except in children’s programs? Who gives men “headship”? And he’s commending a woman leader? What gives?

I recently came across the following compelling perspective on Phoebe. The Christians for Biblical Equality June e-newsletter (which unfortunately is not posted online) contained an article by Dr. Michael Bird (PhD, University of Queensland). He typically looks at Phoebe in Romans 1 with his classes, and discusses the meaning of “deacon,” “benefactor,” and the role of letter carriers in antiquity. He then asks, “So then, if Phoebe is a deacon, Paul’s benefactor, and he trusted her to take this very important letter to the Romans, then Phoebe must have been a woman of great abilities and good character in Paul’s mind. Do you agree?” Invariably the class agrees.

Next, he asks, “And if the Romans had any questions about the letter like ‘what is the righteousness of God?’ or ‘who is this wretched man about half-way through?’ who do you think would be the first person that they would ask?” He then adds (rather provocatively), “Could it be that the first person to publicly read and teach about or from Romans was a woman? If so, what does that tell you about women and teaching roles in the early church?”

“Think about it people. This is Romans—Paul’s letter to unify the Roman churches and to prevent a potentially fractious cluster of ethnically mixed house churches from ending up like Galatia where there were painful divisions over Law and Halakhah—the oral interpretation on how exactly to obey the Law… This is Romans, his greatest letter-essay, the most influential letter in the history of Western thought, and the singularly greatest piece of Christian theology. Now if Paul was so opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere, why on earth would he send a woman like Phoebe to deliver this vitally important letter and to be his personal representative in Rome? Why not Timothy, Titus, or any other dude? Why Phoebe?”

Since presumably no one would think that Paul contradicted himself, it seems that taken at face value, he apparently had no problem with women having speaking and teaching roles in the churches. It should follow that the Church likewise commend in their ministries young women whom God has gifted with leadership.

4 thoughts on “phoebe’s true significance

  1. Been thinking about this since you posted it. It’s amazing to me that Jesus entrusted women with the gospel right after the resurrection (Mary Magdalene and their part in the first 120). Paul seems to be keeping this “tradition”, recognizing women as coheirs in the kingdom and entrusting them with carrying the message as well as teaching about the Gospel. I really do wonder why we believe women are gifted but refuse to admit that those gifts are ok to be used in a leadership roll because it’s a woman. If the gospel is about peace, why do we hinder anyone from functioning as a peacemaker in the way the Spirit has incarnated grace in their life?


  2. Two thoughts:

    Firstly: Jan, excellent post. This is a perspective on Pheobe that I’ve never considered before. I’m curious though: you still leave the apparent contradiction in other Pauline writings unanswered. I think that we may be seeing Paul’s cultural adaptability at work. He was obviously extremely gifted at contextual communication, and intentionally became “…all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.”

    Secondly, in response to Aaron: I think men are afraid that if women are permitted into roles of ecclesiological leadership, that they will threaten men’s power. In the organizational structure of the Western church, leadership is nearly always ultimately (and unfortunately) about power, the same as our politics. I can’t help but think that there would likely be less denominational infighting and harsh divisions if women’s perspectives held more weight in they “way we do Church.”


  3. Interesting and provocative post. Like Dave, I hadn’t considered this view. I looked the verse up in the NASB ( and the Net Bible ( and they both translate the word as “servant” instead of “deacon”. Here’s what the Net Bible’s translator’s notes says about the translation of that word:

    1tn Or “deaconess.” It is debated whether διάκονος (diakonos) here refers to a specific office within the church. One contextual argument used to support this view is that Phoebe is associated with a particular church, Cenchrea, and as such would therefore be a deacon of that church. In the NT some who are called διάκονος are related to a particular church, yet the scholarly consensus is that such individuals are not deacons, but “servants” or “ministers” (other viable translations for διάκονος). For example, Epaphras is associated with the church in Colossians and is called a διάκονος in Col 1:7, but no contemporary translation regards him as a deacon. In 1 Tim 4:6 Paul calls Timothy a διάκονος; Timothy was associated with the church in Ephesus, but he obviously was not a deacon. In addition, the lexical evidence leans away from this view: Within the NT, the διακον- word group rarely functions with a technical nuance. In any case, the evidence is not compelling either way. The view accepted in the translation above is that Phoebe was a servant of the church, not a deaconess, although this conclusion should be regarded as tentative.

    Interesting topic. Thanks for the post.


    1. The translations definitely make things more interesting. Like… are they trying to translate away the significance of Paul actually calling Phoebe a “deacon”? And it’s rather bothersome to have “servant” and “deacon” differentiated that way (I realize I’m crossing over modern & historical contexts here). Deacons should of course be servants to the church. Maybe he’s stressing the significance of serving as a deacon…? Thanks for a great comment!


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