by Al Maxey

Issue #299 ------- April 29, 2007
A real leader has no need to lead;
he is content to point the way.

Henry Miller {1891-1980}

Our Sister Phoebe
Deaconess of Cenchrea

Confucius [551-479 B.C.], the great Chinese philosopher, once observed in his Analects, "Go before the people with your example, and be laborious in their affairs." Genuine leadership is evidenced by those who feel no need to command, but who rather rally others to a cause by their depth of passion, conviction, and courageous example. Lao-Tzu [6th century B.C.], in his classic, immortal work The Way of Life, advised: "Be the chief, but never the lord." Effective leaders are indeed out front, taking the lead, and yet the most efficacious are far more visible than vocal. The apostle Peter urged spiritual shepherds never to be "lords over those entrusted to you," but rather to be "examples to the flock" [1 Peter 5:3]. As the ancient Chinese maxim so profoundly states: "Not the cry, but the flight of the wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow." Without a doubt, this wisdom was powerfully personified in a servant of the church at Cenchrea: a woman by the name of Phoebe.

The totality of our awareness of this illustrious, illustrative servant of God and His people is limited to a mere two verses that appear near the very end of one of Paul's most powerful epistles. Beyond these few words preserved by inspiration we know absolutely nothing of her life on this earth. As the apostle Paul brought his epistle to the Romans to a conclusion, he wrote, "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a helper of many, and of myself as well" [Romans 16:1-2, NASB]. Though this may seem like a rather simple passage, somewhat personal in nature, in which a dear sister in Christ is commended to a distant group of disciples, it is far from it. Indeed, this passage has been the cause of heated debate and division for centuries.

The primary concern, of course, has to do with the nature of this woman's service to the church in Cenchrea, and what that may or may not suggest with respect to the role of women within the One Body of Christ Jesus. For those interested in examining previous articles I have written on various aspects of this challenging issue, please refer to those studies listed under the heading "Role of Women" in my Topical Index. Many biblical scholars, including a good number of highly respected leaders within our own Stone-Campbell Movement, firmly believe Phoebe was a recognized leader of the congregation -- a deaconess. Others, however, almost go into a seizure at the thought. Frankly, there are dynamics at work here that go well beyond a simple exegesis of the text; this is far more about personal comfort zones engendered by centuries of cultural preferences and, yes, even prejudices. Whether we care to admit it or not, our interpretation of Scripture, even by those among us with only the very best of intentions, is influenced by our socio-economic status, cultural and traditional upbringing, educational attainments, and familial and denominational loyalties. You and I may read the exact same passage, both of us doing so with good, honest hearts, truly intent upon perceiving God's will for our lives from the text, and yet our respective, resultant understandings may well be worlds apart. This dramatic disparity of discernment among disciples has been witnessed from the very beginning of our Lord's walk among men, and it certainly is evidenced in the debate over the passage before us.

Phoebe -- a Greek name meaning "pure, bright, radiant" -- was, in the words of the apostle Paul, "our sister," which simply signifies that she was a faithful disciple of our Lord Jesus; a cherished member of the family of Christ; a beloved daughter of the Father, and thus "our sister." Before anything else is said about her in this brief passage, Paul seeks to establish the one fact that supersedes all others, and before which all other considerations considerably pale: Phoebe is a Christian. He also clearly establishes the reality that the parameters of the Father's family are quite broad. Although Phoebe lived in Cenchrea, and Paul was originally from Tarsus, and the saints to whom he was writing lived in Rome, nevertheless she was "our sister." There are no boundaries separating brethren; no walls of exclusion; we are all one in Christ Jesus, who tore down the dividing walls, extending a welcome to all who are willing to come to Him in simple, demonstrative faith. Thus, whether we be slave or free, rich or poor, white collar or blue collar, male or female, Jew or Gentile, liberal or conservative, or 31 different flavors in-between, we are still One Body. We are family. To the saints in Rome, who had never met Phoebe, Paul commends her as "our sister." We need to cherish this love of the brethren, and, where it is absent, we need to recapture it and nurture it. Without that fervent love of the brethren, can we even truly claim to be the children of God?! The apostle John declares that whether we are children of God or children of the devil is conditioned upon our love for one another [1 John 3:10]. Indeed, the one who says he loves God, but does not love his brother, "is a liar" [1 John 4:20].

Our knowledge of this precious woman as a person is extremely limited, and is largely speculative in nature. Certain assumptions about Phoebe are generally drawn from these two verses near the end of Paul's letter to the Roman brethren, but, as any good biblical interpreter knows, mere human assumptions can never rise to the level of absolute, objective certainty. Or, to put it another way: inferred "facts" are a far cry from that which is demonstrably factual. For example, the majority of biblical scholars infer that she was most likely a widow. The text also seems to suggest that she was about to make a long journey to another part of the empire, perhaps to transact some business, and that she was traveling unaccompanied (no husband is mentioned) and would thus perhaps require the assistance of the saints in Rome. Such freedom to move about the empire was normally not enjoyed by those married or with children at home. A few widows, however, especially if they had established themselves in some lucrative business (some see Lydia in this category), were known to travel rather extensively. She was also apparently a woman of some financial resources, as is inferred by the terms used to describe her assistance of others in Cenchrea.

For example, Paul says Phoebe "has been a helper of many, and of myself as well" [vs. 2]. The word translated "helper" is the Greek word prostatis, a very rare word found only here in the NT writings, and never found in either the papyri or the Septuagint. This word "means 'patroness' or 'protectress,' suggesting she was a wealthy woman who looked after the needs of less fortunate persons. In Athens the masculine term designated the office of a man who represented people without civic rights. Under Roman law such a patron or patroness could even represent foreigners" [The Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 1328]. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia concurs, stating that this particular Greek word was "a technical term for a legal representative of a foreigner, which would suggest a person of wealth and status" [vol. 3, p. 853]. Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, in his classic Word Studies from the Greek NT, saw Phoebe as "a woman set over others, a protectress, a patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources" [vol. 1, p. 258]. This word "means a great deal. It seems to suggest one who has been the patroness of the unprotected and despised, one who has come to the aid of ... and fought the battles of those who were oppressed" [Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, p. 231]. Apparently even Paul benefited from her aid on occasion, although no specific incident is ever mentioned. Some speculate a connection between Phoebe's aid to Paul and the statement in Acts 18:18 -- "In Cenchrea he had his hair cut, for he was keeping a vow." It is thought by several scholars that Paul may have become gravely ill, or was facing some dangerous physical or legal challenge, and made an impassioned appeal to God for relief. That relief may have come in the form of Phoebe, and Paul then, in gratitude, fulfilled his vow to God.

It is rather evident, therefore, that "our sister" Phoebe was a woman of some prominence in Cenchrea, which was a port city located on the Saronic Gulf about nine miles SE of Corinth. "According to Pausanius the name derives from Cenchreas, son of Poseidon and Peirene (in Greek mythology). During the NT period a temple to Aphrodite lay on one side of the harbor, and there were sanctuaries of Asklepios and Isis on the other, while a bronze image of Poseidon was located on a mole extending into the sea" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 628]. Biblical scholars almost unanimously agree that Phoebe was the person Paul chose to transport to the saints in Rome this epistle in which she is mentioned and commended, which shows even further Paul's great confidence in her as a trusted disciple of Christ. Perhaps his most important theological work was given into the hands of a woman for preservation and delivery. Such speaks highly of Phoebe!

The question that concerns disciples of Christ the most, however, is the nature of Phoebe's relationship to the church in Cenchrea. Obviously, she possessed some degree of respect and authority within the city itself, and perhaps even beyond. But did she possess any such authority within the church? In other words, did she "hold office," as some believe? The basis of this belief, and the many disputes and debates that have arisen from it, is Paul's statement that Phoebe "is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea" [Rom. 16:1, NASB]. What exactly did Paul mean by that term? Notice several other translations of this phrase:

  1. A leader in the church --- CEV

  2. A minister of the congregation --- NWT

  3. Who holds office in the congregation --- NEB

  4. A special helper in the church --- Easy-to-Read Version

  5. A key representative of the church --- The Message

  6. Who is minister of the assembly --- Darby Translation

  7. A ministrant of the assembly --- Young's Literal Translation

  8. A servant of the congregation --- Hugo McCord's Translation

  9. A servant of the church --- NASB, HCSB, ESV, KJV, NKJV, NIV, ASV

  10. A deaconess of the church --- NAB, RSV, Amplified Bible, Williams' NT, J. B. Phillips' Modern Translation

As one can see just from these few versions and translations, there is no small disparity of perception as to the nature of Phoebe's relationship to her fellow believers in the port town of Cenchrea. She is said to be a servant, minister, deaconess, leader, special helper, key representative, and/or office holder. And this diversity of opinion is encountered even more when one begins examining the writings of the biblical scholars and commentators over the past several centuries; views that line up very clearly behind partisan perceptions as to the role of women in the church, and what authority, if any, a woman is believed to possess. Although some struggle greatly with the notion that a woman could ever do much more than "sit silently in the presence of her spiritual superiors (men)" in the assembly, nevertheless it was certainly not unusual for God to use women in very prominent roles among His people, and we find this revealed in both OT and NT historical writings. Athaliah, for example, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, reigned as queen over Judah for six years (2 Kings 11:3; 2 Chron. 22:12). Deborah, who was a prophetess of God, served as a judge over Israel for 40 years (Judges 4:4-5). We find several female prophets of God mentioned -- Miriam (Ex. 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chron. 34:22), Noadiah (Neh. 6:14), Anna (Luke 2:36), and the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). We also see a husband and wife team of prophets -- Isaiah and his wife (Is. 8:3), and of evangelists -- Priscilla and Aquila. Joel 2:28-29 even foresaw a time, during the Christian dispensation, when both "your sons and daughters will prophesy ... and even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days." Thus, it shouldn't overly surprise us to find a woman deacon (Phoebe -- Rom. 16:1-2), a woman apostle (Junia -- Rom. 16:7; see: Reflections #201), and women prophets (Philip's daughters) in the church.

Nevertheless, scholarship is still considerably divided as to Phoebe's actual role in the church at Cenchrea, and the significance of the term Paul used to describe that role. The Greek word in question is diakonos, which may take either a masculine or feminine form depending on the gender of the person thusly described. Phoebe is characterized as a female deacon (or: deaconess). The word itself simply means "servant, minister; one who renders service to or ministers to another." One need not be an "office holder" to render service to another, although there clearly appears to be a specific group within the larger community of believers who have been set apart as special servants ("deacons"), just as there are specific persons set apart from the larger community of believers as "shepherds" [1 Tim. 3; Philp. 1:1]. The question, then, is whether Phoebe (or any woman, for that matter) could ever be considered as part of this set apart group of servants, or whether her service was more generic (in the sense that we are all to be "servants of the church"). There is simply no question that Phoebe served the church in Cenchrea. Certainly, all the members should have been doing so! But, was she recognized by them as a servant-leader in some capacity?

Dr. James D. Bales, Professor of Christian Doctrine for a good many years at Harding University, in 1967 wrote a marvelous little book (111 pages) titled "The Deacon and His Work" in which he devoted the entire 7th chapter (pages 73-85) to the topic of deaconesses. I would personally concur with Bro. Bales, who believed Phoebe was most definitely appointed to a position of special service to the congregation of believers in Cenchrea, but that she was not an "office holder." Indeed, this concept of elders, deacons and evangelists being "office holders" is one I oppose quite strongly. Yes, these are special servants who provide special service, but they are not "office holders" in the same sense that one might find in politics or business. Dr. Bales writes, "I am not convinced that there was an office of deaconess in the church, but it is clear that there were female servants of the church. It is not necessary to prove that there was an office of deaconess in order to prove that there were women whom the church selected to do special work for the church. Thus, it is unnecessary to settle the question as to whether technically there is such an office (of deaconess); for surely there is such a work" [p. 79]. Frankly, I believe the church has for too long fallen into the "titles" trap. It's not about what we're called, but rather what we're called to be and to do. We are functionaries, not dignitaries. There are too many "politicians" in the church "running for office;" too many lords, and not nearly enough laborers. These men, and, yes, even women, need to recapture that heart of a servant that is the hallmark of all genuine discipleship and servant-leadership.

In the Apostolic Constitutions, which was "a fourth-century pseudo-Apostolic collection, in 8 books, of independent, though closely related, treatises on Christian discipline, worship, and doctrine, intended to serve as a manual of guidance for the clergy, and to some extent for the laity" [The Catholic Encyclopedia], one will find a great many allusions to deaconesses in the church and the nature of their duties, which predominantly were focused on ministry to women's needs. "The strict separation of the sexes made something like deaconesses necessary for baptism, visiting the women, etc." [Robertson's Word Pictures, e-Sword]. I would refer you to Reflections #239 on the issue of women baptizing. Vincent, in his Word Studies, says that "their duties were to take care of the sick and poor, to minister to martyrs and confessors in prison, to assist at the baptism of women, and to exercise a general supervision over the female church-members" [e-Sword]. Book #3 of the Apostolic Constitutions, for example, reads: "Ordain a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministries toward the women." The historical records of the time clearly depict such functionaries in the early church. A good example of this is found in the letters of Pliny the Younger, whose actual name was Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus [62-115 A.D.], who was a Roman senator, and later the governor of Bithynia and Pontus [109-111 A.D.]. He wrote a series of now famous letters to Trajan, the emperor of the Roman Empire. In one of those many letters he described how he had tortured a couple of Christian women in order to try and discern the exact nature of what it was these "Christians" believed and practiced. Notice the following heart-wrenching statement from the pen of Pliny the Younger: "Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition." There are many other such secular references to this group of women servants in the early church to which Phoebe clearly belonged.

"That in the earliest churches there were deaconesses, to attend to the wants of the female members, there is no good reason to doubt. Indeed, from the relation in which the sexes then stood to each other, something of this sort would seem to have been a necessity" [Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, e-Sword]. John Wesley [1703-1791], the great English evangelist and founder of Methodism, wrote in his Explanatory Notes, "In the apostolic age, some grave and pious women were appointed deaconesses in every church. It was their office, not to teach publicly, but to visit the sick, the women in particular, and to minister to them both in their temporal and spiritual necessities." I find it rather unfortunate that Wesley chose to use the word "office" in his statement, for "Paul is not stressing office but service" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 161].

Moses E. Lard [1818-1880], one of the more renowned leaders within the Stone-Campbell Movement, wrote in his classic commentary on the book of Romans, "I am of the opinion that Phoebe was a deaconess in the official sense of that word. What the special duties were of this order of women it would seem not difficult to conjecture -- their work consisted in serving the sisterhood. Indeed, even in the present day, wherever the necessities of the churches are such as to demand it, then the order of the deaconesses should be re-established. They are often of as much importance to a church as the deacons, if not even more" [p. 452]. "Was Phoebe appointed to the service by the church, or did she assume it of herself? The question is not even material. For whether she assumed the service of her own accord, or was appointed to it, she performed it with the Apostle's sanction. This stamps it as right. If the church appointed her to the service, then other churches may do likewise; for the action of that church, being sanctioned by the Apostle, becomes a precedent" [p. 451].

Over the years, some have criticized Paul for what they perceived to be a low estimate of women in the church. I have actually had women approach me in three different congregations and declare, in the words of one of those women, "Paul was nothing but a male chauvinist pig!" Such castigation simply shows these women had no clue as to the actual teaching of Paul. If anything, Paul was ahead of his time in his defense and elevation of women in the church. A sister in Christ by the name of Lena Rea penned a marvelous book titled "Romans -- From A Woman's Point Of View." In this book she wrote, "By his recommending Phoebe, Paul shows his high esteem for woman's work in the church" [p. 156]. I couldn't agree more! Phoebe was a very special Christian lady, with a very special "heart for service" in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. She was a servant; a deaconess. As a servant-leader in the One Body, her example serves as an enduring tribute to all other women who have served, and continue to serve, their Lord in whatever ministries to which they have been individually called and given ability by the Holy Spirit. I'm sure Paul thanked God many times for his "sister Phoebe." May you and I thank God daily for the Phoebes in the church today. Brothers, without our sisters we would be a pitiful lot indeed. Cherish them and honor them as they so rightly deserve! We have neglected them for too long!

Reflections on CD
Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

A 200 page book by Al Maxey
Order Your Copy Today
Publisher: (301) 695-1707
Reflections on the Holy Spirit
A Newly Published Tract by Al Maxey
Order Copies From:
J. Elbert Peters
1701 Jeannette Circle, NW
Huntsville, Alabama 35816
(256) 859-3186
Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in California:

Dear Brother Maxey, I'm sending you two email addresses that were given to me today at a funeral I attended. The first one is from a young minister at the First Christian Church here in our area. The second is from another young pastor living in a neighboring community. His wife informed me at the funeral that over 30 members from the Church of Christ have left that group recently and are now worshipping where this young pastor preaches. She never went into details as to why, and I didn't question her. She also said that if she and her husband enjoyed your Reflections, then she would suggest that many of their members send you their email addresses to be added to your mailing list. I explained to both of these young pastors that I felt your Reflections to be the very best weekly publication that I have ever known about in the course of my many, many years of ministry (I'm now 87 years young). I feel confident there will be several who will subscribe after they have had a chance to review their first copy.

From a Christian Church Pastor in California:

Bro. Al, Wow! It is just so stunning that the patternists still engage in such Pharisaic theological gymnastics to try and preserve such an inconsequential tradition as unaccompanied singing! Al, I thought I understood this CENI hermeneutic pretty well -- that is, until I read "Brother Buster Breaks Silence." Trying to understand Buster Dobbs' (il)logic makes me feel just like I do when I try to follow which shell the little blue ball is under after a carnival huckster's 15 seconds of lightning-fast juxtapositioning. At the end I'm left clueless. Brother Buster's editorial in Firm Foundation is the most convoluted line of thought I've ever read. He even out-spins those political spinmeisters on the TV news shows. Did our God really make the Good News that confusing?! I don't think so! Is it any wonder that the legalistic patternists are losing members by the droves? I don't think so! Does this stuff make any sense at all to anyone other than their own? I don't think so! My head and my heart are in a free fall. After reading his editorial I need a big dose of the Love and Grace of God. Thanks for this exposť, brother!

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, I have always enjoyed your articles. With regard to your latest article in response to Dobbs' editorial, I believe silence does say something significant -- it speaks to God's complete lack of concern for those issues which men consider to be crucial to salvation. It very much sounds as if, like the Pharisees of Christ's time who felt that they had to build a hedge of further definition around the law to protect it, Brother Dobbs desires more specificity in order to better pronounce judgment against those he would deign as falling short of "the law" of Christ. It is impossible for me to believe, however, that an all-knowing and loving God would neglect to reference anything of significance that He would find offensive, or that would bar His children from this eternal kingdom. It is hard for me to believe that Christ would have neglected during His years of ministry anything that God would find offensive. In the decades covered by the writings following Christ's ascension, it also seems God would have explicitly spoken out against anything that might threaten or corrupt the church. Sometimes it seems that individuals are so consumed by what God didn't speak that they are unable to hear what He is speaking to them today. The prattle by which we attempt to justify ourselves and judge all others simply drowns out that whispering hope that lies within. We have been too long dividing the Body of Christ over our own opinions with regard to silence, instead of reaching out to those in need of hearing the Gospel. There is no "good news" in bickering brothers! When such denominational publications spout judgment against all who are outside of their denomination, and when ministers rail from the pulpit against "that other group down the street that calls themselves 'Christians,'" instead of proclaiming the grace of the Lord, the result is only hypocritical, prideful, self-righteousness. Is it any wonder evangelical efforts have fallen on deaf ears in recent decades?!

From a Reader in Ohio:

Bro. Al, Thank you once again for a very clear and logical examination of one of the most emotionally-charged issues within the Churches of Christ. My husband and I come from families/churches that are stridently a cappella in their worship, but we now attend an instrumental Church of Christ and are attempting to employ a more non-denominational perspective. Whenever I have the opportunity to visit and worship with my family (essentially "looking in from the outside"), I can now clearly see the strong cultural aspects of this practice, both in style and attributes of the music. However, as is the very nature of culture, it is often difficult to analyze one's own culture objectively while living within it. In fact, it may actually be impossible. Indeed, culture is a precious decoration in a person's life, but it should never become one's measuring stick for determining what pleases God. When I suggest to my family members that there is a cultural aspect to their worship, whether it be music, style of preaching, etc., I am soundly rebuked. I believe it is the emotion generated by comfort with our own culture that may hinder our objective examination of the simple words, and even the silence, of God. Signed: A regular and appreciative reader.

From a Reader in Texas:

Excellent article, Bro. Al -- as usual. Keep up the good work. For many years I subscribed to the Firm Foundation, and I read each issue diligently. However, I finally let my subscription lapse when Bro. Dobbs took over that publication some years ago. I got tired of all the negative writing that just left me feeling depressed and saddened after reading their articles. Again, Bro. Al, please keep up the good work you are doing in exposing this illness in the Body.

From a Minister in Australia:

Brother Al, Just a note to say "Hi," and to assure you that even though I haven't written to you for some time, you continue to be in my prayers. I read each of your weekly Reflections, and I thank you for your work in producing them. They are a great resource! I remain available to assist you in any way that you think I can be of assistance in furthering your ministry. Have a blessed day.

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, Regarding your article on Buster's editorial: that was 1 Cor. 13:2 at it's finest!! Your critique was an example of discernment, knowledge and faith delivered with and in love! May God bless you, Al, in your service to Him.

From a Reader in Virginia:

Brother Al, We are having a discussion here on the Passover. A question came up -- did the Israelites celebrate Passover while they were in the wilderness, or did the next celebration of Passover, after the initial one in Egypt prior to the exodus, occur after they reached the land of promise? Thanks for any help on this you can provide.

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: