So far I’ve discussed several women who, while they demonstrated considerable spiritual leadership and influence, came along before the establishment of the Church as we know it today. That’s why I’m pleased to introduce you to Phoebe.
The English Standard Version renders Romans 16:1 thus:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae,”
Compare this to another popular translation, the New Revised Standard Version:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae,”
See the difference? In one version, Phoebe is a servant. In another, she’s a deacon.
Why is this important? It is important because in 1 Timothy 3:12, Paul places deacons in a unique position of church leadership and responsibility, categorizing them in the same way that he does overseers and elders. In this passage, Paul gives stipulations to Timothy for what these deacons ought to be like. Among them is this stipulation: they should be the faithful husband of one wife.
This matters because many want to prohibit women from church leadership because of Paul’s exortation that elders, overseers, and deacons be the husband of one wife when he’s writing to Timothy. They say that this demonstrates that church leaders should be men. This timeless and universal application of the text has other problems beyond the fact that Phoebe was apparently a deacon herself (for instance, Paul himself wasn’t the husband of one wife. He wasn’t a husband at all).
The Greek word that nearly all translations render as “deacon” in Philippians 1:1 and Timothy 3:8 and 3:12 is the very same word that Paul uses to refer to Phoebe in Romans 16:1: diakonos. Yet some translations refuse to call her a deacon; they turn Phoebe into a “servant.” The ESV even goes so far as to translate it “servant,” and then add a footnote which says “or deaconess,” even though the same word is not translated “deaconess” elsewhere in the same translation. For this translating committee, there is no way that Phoebe was a plain ol’ deacon.
It’s interesting that the ESV and NRSV translations translate diakonos exactly the same way in all 29 instances of it in the New Testament – except for one. You guessed it: when it’s applied to the woman Phoebe.
I tried to identify what textual clues might designate when the word is translated “deacon” as opposed to “minister” or “servant.” I noticed that any time the word is used in relation to local church ministry, it’s rendered “deacon.” For instance, in 1 Timothy 3, the word occurs twice while Paul is describing local church governance. Both times, it is translated “deacon.” In Philippians 1, Paul is writing to the overseers and deacons at the church in Philippi, and again our English translators consistently use the word “deacon.” Phoebe is no different. Paul specifically assigns her a post in a local church: she’s a diakonos in the church in Cenchrea.
She fits the bill for a deacon, it seems. If only she were a man.
It’s important to know that there are passages in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 where Paul seems to take a pretty clear stance against women in ministry. Don’t worry. We’ll get to those.
But before we do, we’ve got one more lady to meet. She’s easy to miss, tucked right there in the middle of Romans 16 with Phoebe. Her name is Junia, and her story is the one that compelled me to write on this entire issue. It’s that good.