Who is this Phoebe?

Recently, the question of women serving as deacons came up at The Gospel Coalition with one article answering “Yes” and another answering “No.” I’m not nearly erudite enough to take on the two writers, both heavy-duty seminary professors at evangelical institutions, but I would like to camp out a little bit on this question. Happily–from my selfish perspective–this question hasn’t been raised in any serious way at my church. If I have any luck, that hornet nest will not be kicked until after I have served out my year as deacon chairman in 2020. Still, a well-informed member of the church ought to be able to offer some reason as to why women are or are not ordained to this role.

PhoebeFor today, I’d like to start with Phoebe. In Romans 16:1, we read of this woman who was, it is assumed, entrusted in carrying Paul’s letter to Rome. Here’s what Paul says:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae.

Phoebe is a servant of the church, and, of course, that word “servant” is diakonos. (If you look in the small Greek print just to the right of Phoebe’s neck in the painting, you’ll see the word printed there.)

So was Phoebe a servant or a Servant, a deacon or a Deacon. In other words, did she simply serve the church or did she hold the office that Paul talks about in 1 Timothy 3? If she holds the office, then we have to believe that Paul approved of female deacons. Let’s consider the possibilities.

I normally appreciate the work of David Guzik, whose notes for the whole Bible are available online. Here’s what he says about the key word:

Bible translators have a habit of translating the ancient Greek word diakonon as “deacon” when it speaks of men and “servant” when it speaks of women.

Is that true? I’m not going to survey every Bible translation, but let’s look at a handful of examples.

  • In the NIV, we find the word translated as “deacon” only five times and three of those are in 1 Timothy 3. The other two are the Phoebe verse, Romans 16:1, and the generic usage in Philippians 1:1.
  • The NASB uses “deacon” five times, adding one in 1 Timothy 3 and omitting the Romans 16:1 usage.
  • The CSB has the exact same five usages as the NASB.
  • The ESV provides five usages and, you guessed it, they are the same.

In reality, far from having a “habit of translating” in a sexist manner, I have yet to find a single case where a man or a collection clearly composed of men is translated as “deacon.” Instead, Tychicus in Ephesians 6:21 and Epaphras in Colossians 1:7 are both described as servants or ministers.

So why should we insist that Phoebe is a deacon rather than a servant? Thomas Schreiner, in the article linked above, reads it this way:

With so little to go on, the decision could go either way, for the word diakonos in Greek may refer to a servant without having the idea of a particular office. Nevertheless, the addition of the words “the church in Cenchreae” suggests an official capacity. Verse 2 supports this understanding, since Phoebe is designated as a “patron” (ESV) or “benefactor” (CSB), which means she regularly helped, perhaps financially, those in need.

Does the mention of the church really suggest an official capacity? I suppose it might, but might those two descriptors be more in parallel: she’s a servant and she’s from the church in Cenchreae? And the patron material from verse two does not seem to prove anything at all. Phoebe certainly could be a deacon, but it doesn’t seem the open-and-shut case that Schreiner suggests.

Sam Storms, in a recent writing, suggests that Phoebe holds the office, but he provides exactly zero support for this position. He quotes the verse and then notes that some think it merely means “servant.” Then he adds this:

Although others hold a different opinion, it seems to me that the primary reason they resist speaking of Phoebe as an office-holder is the prior conviction that the role of deacon is gender specific, that is, it is restricted to males.

Is it possible that some immediately reject Phoebe as a deacon simply because they reject female deacons? Of course. Does that predisposition make Phoebe a deacon? No. If I determine that Starbucks has bad coffee because I don’t like coffee (or because I have a prejudice against the company), the existence of my bias does not make their coffee good, bad, or indifferent.

On the other hand, Guy Waters, writing the counterpart entry to Schreiner, takes the same verse and the question between “servant” and “deacon,” opining:

It is doubtful the word here bears the more precise sense of “deacon.”

Really? Why is it doubtful? Just as those inclined in one direction can offer no definite reason to insist that Phoebe holds an office, those opposed have similarly flimsy evidence.

So what is the bottom line? Who was this Phoebe? Was she a servant or a deacon? The bottom line, I think, is that anyone who claims to know with any degree of certainty is employing smoke and mirrors. The supposed sexism noted by Guzik is non-existent, at least in Bible translations. (But there’s plenty of sexism in the church, so let’s not feel too smug.)

What we can know is that Phoebe played an important role with the church at Cenchreae. She was trusted and productive. She possessed a servant’s heart. Whether she carried ordination is a question we cannot with any certainty answer, but we can with confidence know that she was what local gatherings and the wider church have valued for 2,000 year, a dedicated woman.

And for now, that has to be enough.


A Sluggish Tongue?

ordinationLast night, I got to participate in the ordination of a friend, Chris, as a deacon. Our new addition–the guy in the tie in the photo–went from being a servant to being a Servant. And my guess is that not much will change about this man, despite his newfound capital letter and a nifty ordination plaque.

Before the ordination prayer, Chris had an opportunity to share his testimony. I don’t think he really looked forward to that. He’d probably agree with Moses from Exodus 4:10: “my mouth and my tongue are sluggish.” Nobody wants to hear Chris preach a sermon next Sunday, least of all him!

Despite what I think any honest hearer would describe as a labored presentation, Chris’ friends and family on social media thanked him for his “excellent testimony.” As I reflect on it, his words, although not eloquent, were all the right words.

But honestly, those few minutes of public speaking, his notecards shaking in his left hand, were not Chris’ excellent testimony. His testimony is as a gentle father, a devoted husband, and a man who takes on some of the most difficult children that our church has to offer. Over the years I’ve known him, he continually has shown everyone the individual attention, love, and discipline that they require.

If a deacon should happen to be a good teacher or preacher, that’s wonderful. It’s a bonus, but eloquence is not in the job description. Read 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Unlike the overseer in 1 Timothy 3:2, the deacon need not be “able to teach,” but he must be able to serve. As we’ve seen before, service is in the very name of a deacon.

The eloquent testimony that Chris has given was not in the five minutes or so that he spoke to us last night. His testimony is in how he deals humbly and faithfully with DJ and LJ, a couple of the challenging children that others might just dismiss. He seems to honestly enjoy those interactions. Just don’t ask him to give a speech about the work.

Waiting Tables

basin and towel.jpgWhat is a deacon? That office means different things in different settings even within the realm of Christianity. For over a thousand years the office of deacon (as a permanent thing rather than a stepping stone to priesthood) disappeared in Roman Catholicism. But that’s not what interests me about the office. In my own faith tradition, the deacon has a long history as one of the two ordained offices within the church, deriving that doctrine from Philippians 1:1 and the provision of qualifications for only two positions in 1 Timothy 3:1-12.

Baptists are good at pointing to the Bible for our beliefs. Therefore, we tend to scoff at the idea of priests or of elders/bishops/pastors being three separate roles. While that is, I think, a correct approach, it’s of limited value if we allow those two positions to morph into something they weren’t intended to be.

So what should a deacon be? What should he do? What should his qualifications include? That’s much bigger fare than what this one post can include.

One thing that is utterly uncontroversial is that the Greek word that gives us the English word “deacon” is diakonos (that’s διάκονος, if you read Greek). Although that noun and its associated verb diakoneo do not always refer to the office that we call deacon, they do always refer to “servant” and “service.” Various Bible translations render the word as “minister,” which is fine if we remember what that word has meant in the past.

In Mark 9:5, Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and the servant of all.” That word “servant” is diakonos. Jesus, at the Last Supper, describes Himself as “among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27). Again, no surprise, the verb form for “serves” is diakoneo.

Not every use of these words indicates the office of Deacon, but every time they are used, including the ones that speak of Deacons, they speak of service, servanthood, doing the grunt work that most of us would avoid if possible.

If you think you are important enough to be a Deacon, then you don’t really understand the role at all.