Phoebe – Service on behalf of the church

Before Paul signs off his letter to the Romans, he includes some personal greetings and commendations. First in that list is Phoebe. She is presented as an honoured visitor.

At the time, Paul was located in Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth in Greece. It seems that Phoebe was a wealthy woman with a reputation there for personal generosity among those in the church and towards Paul himself. Two colourful words describe her.

Servant

The original Greek word is diakonos variously translated as ‘servant’, ‘minister’ or ‘deacon’. For many years, scholars were agreed that diakonia always meant ‘waiting at tables’ or some other humble social service of a charitable or benevolent nature. Now, most occurrences of the word are better understood to mean ‘the carrying out of a commissioned task’ or even being some kind of emissary or envoy, and often a spokesperson – someone liaising between churches as an authorised representative.(1)

Robertson writes, ‘The only question here is whether [diakonos] is used in a general sense or in a technical sense as in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. In favour of the technical sense of ‘deacon’ or ‘deaconess’ is the addition of … of the church.’(2) Either way, it means Phoebe was, at that moment at least, acting on behalf of the church in Cenchreae. But in what sense?

Paul recommends Phoebe in the same terms that he did Tychicus to the church in Colossae.(3) God was using her to spread the good news. It’s possible that Paul used this influential woman to carry his Bible letter to Rome (supported by his personal commendation of her to the church there), thus carrying in the folds of her clothing the priceless treasure that would live on as the grandest ever apologetic of the Christian Gospel. Phoebe was seen as a trusted messenger.

Patroness

Phoebe is also described as a patron of many (Gk: ‘prostatis’). This is another much debated word variously translated ‘helper’, ‘succourer’, ‘patron’ or ‘benefactor’. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states that this word means ‘a woman set over others’, or ‘a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources’.

In modern analogy, patronage acted as an informal ‘welfare system’, a reciprocal relationship between the upper and lower classes. In exchange for a daily allowance, the client was at the patron’s call.(4)

It had been argued that there were no female patrons in 1st Century Greece. However, Bruce Winter(5) cites Junia Theodora as a wealthy citizen of Corinth, and a benefactress who also had an inscription of letters in her honour which was discovered in 1959.

Phoebe, as a patron, would likely have been a financially independent woman, possibly travelling to Rome on an 800-mile business trip. Seemingly, she gave financial help, or used her contacts and influence on behalf of others. Paul, the missionary, benefited from her patronage. Now he is asking the church in Rome to help Phoebe in a way that she has helped many.

This independent, generous and influential woman had a servant heart – serving God, serving the local church and supporting the mission work of the Apostle Paul. She was a reliable and trustworthy emissary between churches, carrying the very words of God.

Service in a church of God takes many different forms. The example of Phoebe challenges us: Am I able to reach out to help another Christian in my church, using all that is within my means, finances and skill set? Am I trustworthy and reliable in my relationships and in all that I do for the Lord – qualities that cannot be underestimated?(6)

References: (1) Collins, John N, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources, Oxford University Press, 2009 (2) Robertson, A.T., Word Pictures in the New Testament (3) Col. 4:7-9 (4) Bell, Exploring the New Testament World, 191-92. (5) Winter, Bruce W, Roman Wives, Roman Widows; The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities, Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge UK 2003 (6) e.g. 1 Tim. 3:11

Brian & Rosemary Johnston, Leigh, England