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.