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.

Worst of Both Worlds?

person wearing winter jacket while snowing
Photo by Bogdan Glisik on Pexels.com

The snow came last night, enough to slow things down but not enough to paralyze the city. I woke at 4:00 a.m. and reached over to my phone to see if there was school-canceling news. Once my eyes focused on the text, I read with horror these words.

JCCC Alert–JCCC will be on a delayed start Wed. Feb 20 due to winter weather. Campus will open at 10 AM, classes set for 10 AM and after will be as scheduled.

It was the worst of both worlds. Not only did I not get to roll over and sleep as late as I wanted, but I would have to disrupt my class schedule, meeting a skeleton crew of the 10:00 class while allowing the 9:00 class to get behind. My response was to grumble and go back to sleep.

Yesterday, when I wrote about my antipathy to the snow, it was still fairly theoretical. But this morning it seemed personal. Not only was the weather out to get me, but whoever makes the decision on closing the school took aim at my routine. What kind of moron thought it was a good idea to start school at 10:00 a.m. Have school or don’t have school, but don’t saddle me with these half measures!

Then I recalled reading 1 Samuel 15 last night. In that chapter, Saul is ordered to attack the Amalekites, killing everything in the process. It’s pretty blood-thirsty, the sort of thing that we don’t teach in children’s Bible study. Via Samuel, God delivers this message to Saul:

Now go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have. Do not spare them. Kill men and women, infants and nursing babies, oxen and sheep, camels and donkeys.

“Infants and nursing babies?” Wow! That’s severe. That’s the sort of Old Testament seriousness that makes people insist that the God of those days is a very different being from the warm and fuzzy God of the New Testament. What kind of God would order everything to be killed, including children and animals? Why?

As I’ve talked to a few people today about my misgivings regarding the late start, I’ve discovered that not everybody agrees with me. My colleagues don’t all agree. My students–or at least the half of them who showed up–don’t all agree. It turns out that I hadn’t taken all of the relevant information into account before reaching my judgment.

Why did God order the slaughter of infants and nursing babies? I can’t image, but then I don’t have to imagine. Why did the powers of the college order a late opening? I don’t really need to know that either, although I could probably discover it.

Instead, I just need to obey and make the best of matters. While the authorities at the college might not be 100% trustworthy, I have to know that God is. And if He called for a horrific slaughter 3,000 years ago, He must have had a solid reason.


More Snow?

snow streetI’ve had enough of snow for the week or for the month or for the entire winter. I’d say that I’ve had enough for the year, but I’m fairly sure that I could tolerate a bit of snow in December–you know, White Christmas and all that.

A friend of mine sings the praises of snow. She loves it. She can’t wait for it to come in and make the whole world magical. But then she lives in mid-Tennessee, where a half inch of snow that lasts for three hours is a big deal. Here in Kansas City, we’ve had something white on the ground nearly every day since the beginning of the year. We had more snow in November than we had all of last year. And right now, it is coming down in fine flakes, almost too small to be felt. It’s the portent of more to come.

For a solid week now, I’ve been driving Penny crazy by, several times a day, saying, “I’ve had just about enough of this winter nonsense. Have I mentioned that?” She smiles as she grits her teeth. Tonight, in expectation of the blizzard that has just begun outside, we’ve now cancelled the third deacons meeting of 2019. It’s February 19 and we still can’t get the guys together. My school closed at 5:00 p.m., and I won’t cry if we get a snow day tomorrow out of the thing. That’d be the only positive to come out of another four inches of snow.

Why? Why is it still snowing? Why do we have to put up with this nonsense, watching our streets torn up by the freeze-and-melt cycle, struggling to drive here or there? Where is the justice in all of this?

Of course the answer is a non-answer. When Job wagged his finger at God, questioning God’s justice, the Lord’s response was simple and stern. It was an eloquent version of “Shut your mouth!” In part, it was like this:

Have you ever in your life commanded the morning
or assigned the dawn its place,
so it may seize the edges of the earth
and shake the wicked out of it? –Job 38:12-13

Why the snow? I don’t know. I’m still fed up with it, but no amount of my impatience will change a bit of it. So we just hold out for a snow day!

The Potential in a Seed

“Don’t judge a package on your porch by its weight.” Isn’t that a proverb? Doesn’t it go right along with “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Today, we received a small parcel from Baker Creek Seeds, the heirloom seed people from Mansfield, Missouri. As I picked up this package, which put a decent dent in our bank account, I was struck by how light it was. A t-shirt would have come in about the same sized package, tipping the scale similarly.


After getting over my initial disappointment at the smallness of the package, I considered the potential of those seeds.  We probably won’t plant all of them, despite having nearly an acre that could be dedicated to garden this year, but let’s just imagine one variety.

Look at the “Pink Bumble Bee Tomato” package pictured here. The little envelope contains (according to the catalog) some 25 seeds. Let’s imagine that we get 20 of those to grow and produce fruit. A good plant can yield somewhere between eight and twenty pounds of tomatoes. If all twenty of those plants were to give us the minimum of eight pounds, we’d have 160 pounds of cherry tomatoes to consume. That’s 160 pounds from one of 44 packets of seeds! And if we could value our tomatoes at a cheap one dollar per pound, we’d more than pay for our seeds with just the fruit from this one variety. What’s more, if we were inclined, we could save the seeds from a few of our tomatoes to grow even more next year.

The Christian life might not look like much to those who don’t understand it, just as a bunch of seed packets don’t look like much to people who think vegetables grow in cans. But we know that, like a seed, that inauspicious thing will grow and turn into something marvelous, something better tasting that even the best grocery store can offer. Perhaps that’s why Jesus shared the Parable of the Sower and of the Mustard Seed. In Psalm 126:6, we read “though one goes along weeping, carrying the bag of seed, he will surely come back with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves.” I’m pretty sure that the Hebrew word translated “bag of seed” actually means “expensive shipment of seeds from a small town in Missouri.”

Gone Camping? (Hebrews 2:18)

Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18)

If you are reading this, then the Day of Judgment did not come on Saturday, as predicted by Harold Camping. Not being familiar with Camping’s exact claims, I’m not sure he would assert that the Internet would be wiped out by now, but I’m pretty sure that if Judgment Day has come, you won’t be saying, “Hey, I wonder what that Browning guy has to say about Hebrews today!”

As we attempt to live as peculiar people, separate from the world yet dwelling in the midst of the world, it is very tempting to say, “Hey Lord, how about coming back right now?” The Christian life has wonderful rewards, but, lived properly, it pretty well guarantees frustrations and suffering. Why do I have to live through several more decades of toenail fungus and Geico ads? Why can’t the whole thing just end now? I suppose that’s the sort of mindset that allows a believer to commit suicide. Dwelling on and longing for the return of Christ is a sort of cultural suicide wish.

But Christ did not call us to wish it all to be over. He didn’t call us to forfeit whatever remains of the game. His return has been promised, but it has not been promised in our lifetimes, regardless of what various “experts” like Camping suggest. Our call is to soldier on, to suffer as necessary through the remainder of our lives.

Happily, the writer of Hebrews assures us, we need not suffer alone. Jesus, having faced temptation, having endured suffering, can help us through it. He did not provide cryptographic clues to pinpoint the end of the suffering, but he did prescribe the life and values that can help us ride out the storm.

A Different Sort of Hero (Hebrews 2:16-17)

For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:16-17)

I’ve been thinking about superheroes lately. Most of them, it seems, appear to be normal people but they have something special added to them. Spider-man, a normal–perhaps even sub-normal teen–becomes remarkable with the aid of a radioactive spider’s bite. The relatively normal (albeit immortal) Wolverine has an indestructible skeleton grafted into his body. The Fantastic Four start out quite ordinary but then react in distinct and useful ways to cosmic rays. How convenient is that?

Even the father of superheroes, Superman, is essentially a normal human being who happens to possess a set of quite useful qualities. Why he feels it necessary to pursue journalism, I’m not entirely clear.

This model of superhero is nothing new. Homer, in creating Achilles, crafted a character who was a great human warrior with the added benefit of (near) invincibility. Hercules follows a similar model.

While superheroes typically represent humans who add something extra, there is another model available. What if someone who had incredible powers chose instead to make himself perfectly human in every way? Could that hero fight Lex Luthor or the Green Goblin? He wouldn’t be able to shoot spiderwebs or fly or stretch his arms a quarter mile away. What sort of a hero would that be?

Quite out of keeping with the models of superheroes created by man, Jesus becomes completely human in order to accomplish what only a human can do. The notion that Jesus was completely human leads to the idea that we as humans can attain to all of his accomplishments. We too can resist sin. We can work miracles. We can live self-abasing, self-sacrificing lives.

Such a view of Jesus does not diminish him. Instead, it glorifies him. For Spider-Man to do amazing things is expected, but for a completely human figure to do them is more so. And if a completely human Jesus could live in this fashion, what is our excuse?

Speeding to Somewhere (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Let me tell you about my Internet connection. When we first moved to Shamayim Hill, our online options were fairly few. We could opt for expensive, slow, and limited satellite Internet. We could choose expensive, slow, limited, and unreliable cell-based Internet. We could select cheap, slower, and even slower dial-up connection. What a feast of possibilities.

Eventually, we chose the first option. Our bill was high. The speed was reasonable, but we could download only 225 megabytes each day. Any violation of this limit slowed the system down to a crawl for 24 hours. That meant that any use of YouTube or Netflix streaming video was a great risk to the domestic tranquility.

But happy day! We broke out of the cage imposed by the evil purveyors of satellite Internet, making our way to freedom in the realm of DSL. It’s wonderful. This computer just finished downloading a 500 meg update. No big deal. We watch Netflix movies that we don’t even want to. We download gigantic files with no apparent purpose. I love it. But mostly I love not having to worry about hitting the limit and being put into the Internet “penalty box.”

As liberating as my DSL connection feels, it’s nothing compared with the liberty that we have through Christ. Death simply poses no threat to us. We have to remember this fact. The people whom Jesus healed during his ministry, have all died again. But those who were delivered from the bondage of sin have escaped sin once and for all.

These two verses contain a vast number of truths, but not a one of them compares in its ultimate importance to my existence and yours.

Brother or Parent? (Hebrews 2:13)

And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again he says, “Here am I, and the children God has given me.” (Hebrews 2:13)

As I write this, I am entering the end-of-semester grading version of the Bataan Death March. Papers have accumulated on my desk and in my email inbox. I run a very real risk of having a pile of term papers topple over and pin me to the floor. A week from now, though, this ordeal will be nearly ended. I will have tamed the paper beast to a reasonable nuisance. By the end of next week, I’ll be dealing with a few whining, stumbling stragglers.

When it all ends, I will have brought 50 people through Composition I, 25 through Composition II, 1 through World Literature, 25 through Drama, 25 through Bible as Literature, and 10 through American Literature. Yes, it’s been a full semester. In a sense, these students are my intellectual or at least academic children. Some of them, like some normal children, don’t much appreciate my efforts at scholastic parentage. Others, happily, do.

Yesterday, I saw a former student–I’m pretty sure he was a former student–at Burger King. I couldn’t put a name to him and he showed no sign of recognizing me. That’s pretty poor parenthood, wouldn’t you say.

Jesus, it seems, is not simply our brother, the firstborn of God’s family, but is a parent as well. Yes, that’s a mixed metaphor, but no metaphor can contain the fullness of God’s being. As such a parent, he brings uncounted sons and daughters to holiness and glory. He will not forget us, nor will he think the labor too much. In fact, the labor–the “paper grading”–has been finished for centuries.

Family Outcast (Hebrews 2:11-12)

Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says,    “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” (Hebrews 2:11-12)

I have a cousin. For discretion’s sake, I’ll just refer to him as Bluto. Since we grew up and lived in the same town, I fairly often encounter people who, learning my name, look at me and say, “Oh, are you related to Bluto Browning?”

Whenever I hear that question, I pause, contemplating the potential pitfalls of my answer. Invariably, I reply in the same fashion: “Do I want to be?” More than once, my questioner has smiled at that reply. They understand, even if they like Bluto, what I’m getting at. He’s–how shall I say–a little hard to take for many people.

In the Vacation films, the hero Clark Griswold, one of my favorite on-screen personalities, has an embarrassing cousin, Eddie, played by Randy Quaid. Clark attempts to avoid Eddie when he can and keep him at arm’s length when he can’t. Eddie is considerably different from Bluto. For example, Bluto has never dumped the contents of an RV’s sewage tank into a storm drain only to blow up part of the neighborhood. But the feeling is similar, I’m sure.

What’s beautiful about our family relationship with Christ is not that we don’t have to be ashamed of him. After all, why would we be ashamed? What’s beautiful is that after making us holy he doesn’t have to be ashamed of us. We are the awkward cousins in the relationship until Jesus gets hold of us and renders us perfect family. That’s my prayer for Bluto.