Questions Concerning Women in Ministry
William Dwight McKissic, Pastor
Paul and Phoebe: Partners In Ministry
Note: This is the second question addressed in a three part series concerning women in ministry. Today’s message addresses the question can women serve as deacons in light of the Pauline requirement that deacons be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:12).
Romans chapter sixteen (16) reveals tremendous insights into the life of the Apostle Paul, the lives of early Christians, and into the nature and character of the first century church. There are thirty-five persons listed in Romans chapter sixteen (16). Twenty-seven (27) men and eight (8) women. At the top of the list is a woman named Phoebe. Phoebe distinguished herself in early church history as a deacon in her local church, a devoted assistant to Paul, and a helper to many. Paul instructed the Roman Christians to receive and assist Phoebe in a hospitable, holy and honored manner because of her service and stature in the body of Christ. If the twenty-first century church is going to impact society, as did the first century church, we need not only modern day “Pauls” today’s church also needs “Phoebes”.
Paul wrote the Roman epistle from Corinth about A.D. 57. Phoebe was a resident of Cenchrea. Cenchrea was a neighboring port city of Corinth. Acts 18:11 tells us that Paul stayed in Corinth a year and six months, “teaching the word of God among them”. During this period Paul became acquainted with a lady named Phoebe. The Lord said to Paul in Acts 18:10 that he had many people in Corinth. Phoebe was one of those people in the neighboring port city of Cenchrea. During Paul’s stay at Corinth, he penned this epistle to the Romans and he asked Phoebe to physically carry this letter from Corinth to Rome.
There were, of course, no copier or carbon paper in those days, and even the simplest writing materials were very expensive. Paul knew that his writings were the Word of God (1 Corinthians 2:6,7,12,13). Peter recognized Paul’s writings as the Word of God (II Peter 3:5, 16). Paul knew that the journey from Corinth to Rome would not be easy, and would involve considerable sea as well as land travel. There was a public mail system in the Roman Empire that was very slow. Paul did not trust transportation of this epistle to the Roman Post Office. He would only place this letter in the hands of the most reliable of persons and that person was a woman named Phoebe. The name Phoebe means “bright and radiant,” and from Paul’s brief comments about her, it seems that those words characterize her personality and her Christian life. Paul wrote this epistle. Phoebe carried this epistle. After Paul wrote this epistle from Corinth he handed it to Phoebe and he was headed to Jerusalem (Romans 15:25) to minister to the saints. Phoebe headed to Rome to deliver this letter and conduct business. In order that she may be properly received, Paul wrote her these brief words of commendation.
First of all, Paul tells the Roman Christians that, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister.” To refer to Phoebe as our sister meantthat she was a devoted member of the family of God and the context makes clear that she was very dear to Paul. Paul commended her as a sister in the Lord.
Secondly, Paul commended her as a “servant of the church in Cenchrea.” The word “servant” here translates “diakonos” the term from which we get the word “deacon.” This is the same term used in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, 12. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this word in Romans 16:1 as “deaconess.” According to John McCarthur, there was no such word in the Greek language as “deaconess;” the masculine form of “diakonos” was used of both men and women. This term “deaconess” evolved in post-biblical Greek to refer to female deacons. Paul’s language in Romans 16:1 suggests that Phoebe was a church official in her congregation at Cenchrea. We know from church history that females served as deacons in the early church of the first and second centuries.
In 1 Timothy 3:12, Paul said that a deacon must be the husband of one wife. Doesn’t this mean that a woman can’t be a deacon? Paul is discussing church leadership in 1 Timothy 3:1-13. In his discussion of bishops, pastor or elders there was no mention of wives or women (1 Timothy 3:1-7). In his discussion of deacons in verse eleven: (1) In a discussion of church leadership, Paul initiates the discussion of female leadership with the term “likewise”. Likewise is a key transition word that serves to introduce a new category within the over all topic of church leaders. In addition to elders/bishops/pastors and male deacons, the term “likewise” argues strongly for seeing a distinct third group who are discussed within the context of male deacons. (2) The Greek word translated “wives” in verse eleven (11) literally means women. There was no way to say “deaconess” in the Greek language. The only way Paul could distinguish them from male deacons was to refer to them as women. (3) Paul gave no qualifications for elders wives, why would he state qualifications for deacon wives? (4) The qualification for the women paralleled the qualifications for men. They held the same office; therefore they had similiar qualifications. (In the Roman world men were allowed to have more than one wife. Females were not allowed to have more than one husband. That explains why Paul restricted the men to one wife, but did not restrict the women to one husband.)
The fact that Phoebe was identified as a deacon of the church at Cenchrea clearly reveals that the early church had female deacons. Paul told the Romans to receive Deacon Phoebe for truly she was his sister in the Lord and co-laborer in the ministry. Paul wanted the Romans to treat Phoebe with respect and dignity. The church ought to be in the welcoming business. Phoebe was not only going to Rome to deliver the Roman epistle; she was also going to conduct business (perhaps for Paul) in Rome. Paul told the Romans to assist her. Paul commended her to the Romans not only as a sister, and a servant but also as helper…”for indeed she has been a helper of many of myself also.” Women can and should serve as deacons or deaconesses in the local church. Why? Because the success of the church’s ministry not only requires a Paul, the church also needs Phoebe.