There is only one occasion in the Bible when Phoebe was mentioned. In Romans 16 she is the first one of many other women and men whom Paul would mention and often tell of the things they were doing as part of the kingdom of the Lord. Paul had the habit that when he wrote to a church where he was very familiar and had spent much time there, that he seldom mentioned anyone by name. For example when he wrote the book of Philippians whom he loved dearly and who had sent money to assist him over and over again he mentions very few people and most of those aren’t there any longer. But when he wrote a letter to a place where he had never been, he would normally spend some time going through the names of people he knew in that church who were to be commended for their good work. Most of the time the letters were sent by some good person who was traveling to that area and took the letter along with them.
Probably this letter to the Romans was delivered by Phoebe and so Paul lets them know some more about her and the things she might need when there, since she is helping him by carrying the letter to them. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask thou to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a benefactor of many people, including me.” This is from the NIV updated translation. You may be thinking that the word “Deacon” is the wrong word here. Other translations have the word, “Minister” or “Servant”. If you were to look up this text in a Greek New Testament you would find that the word used here is “diakonon” which is a form of the same word used in Acts 6 when the apostles appointed the seven men to serve the tables and take care of the Grecian widows. Interestingly Peter said that they would appoint these seven to “diakonos” or “wait tables” and they would continue to “diakonos” the word. It is also the same basic word used in I Timothy 3 when Paul gives the qualities one should have to be set apart as a deacon. Here in Romans 16:1-2 when Paul describes Phoebe as a deacon he used the feminine form of the word for deacon and so it could be translated “deaconess”.
This same word us used often in the New Testament and seldom applies to some office as we would commonly use the word “Deacon” in our time. In truth every Christian is to be a deacon who serves in the church. When Peter challenged us to use our gifts that we have from God to serve or deacon one another as good stewards of the grace of God then he is using that word in it’s common form. So the question is, did the church in the first century have women deacons? I don’t think Paul is using the word here about Phoebe just in the sense that every Christian is a servant. His point that she is a deacon or servant of the church in Cenchreae indicates there was some special relationship she had not just with the church in general but in particular with that congregation. Since the Bible says so little about the office of the deacon and since in giving the qualities of a deacon in I Timothy 3:8-13 in the middle of his discussion of what a deacon should be he says, “In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers, but temperate and trustworthy in everything” it seems obvious that they did have women deacons and that these special qualities should be used in setting apart the woman as a deacon.
Look at what Paul tells us about this woman he calls a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. Paul visited this church or city when he left Corinth along with Priscilla and Aquila. It was there he got the haircut and made some kind of vow to the Lord. So, perhaps when Paul stopped there or maybe some later time, he met Phoebe. He said the church in Rome should receive her in the Lord. She was a servant of the church and of people so they ought to accept her into the family of Christians immediately. Not only that he challenged them to give her any help she may need from you. We have no notion what kind of help she might have needed. She may have been there on some kind of business. It could have been to do something there on behalf of the church where she served. We just don’t know since Paul makes no effort to let us know. But he wanted the church to be on ready to help her in whatever she needed. Notice his reason why she should be accepted and helped wasn’t just that she was a deacon at Cenchreae. It was because “She has been the benefactor or many people, including me.”
Probably we have all met those women in churches where we have either served or worked with for some purpose and this type woman was there to help, to serve and to be part of any work that might be going on. Cenchreae is a coastal town and likely there were many who came by there for short times to visit or to just stop over as they travelled. She was ready to help all who came that way. Because of what she had done for many others Paul tells the church in Rome that they should treat her with the same kind of respect and hospitality that she had shown to others down through the years.
Whether women deacons are seen as some special office like the men deacons or just seen as great servants in the church, the point remains that there are godly women in every generation and every church that are tremendous servants and make a huge difference for good in every community. Since he gives certain qualities to look for in setting apart these women who served it seem obvious to me that there were women deacons who not only had the office but were tremendous workers in the body and made things better.
So, should the church today have women deacons? In truth every thriving church has a lot of women deacons already or they wouldn’t be thriving. They may not recognize them or appoint them but godly women are there working their heart out for the kingdom. If there is a need to recognize men who are special servants of God and who meet the qualities or qualifications described in I Timothy 3, then why wouldn’t we do the same for women who are servants and meet the qualities described by Paul in the same verses about the women? I’m thankful to God for any servant of the church who gives their heart to the work of the Lord whether man or woman. God help us to have more such servants all the time. Such servants aren’t looking for attention or trying to be up front. They are too busy helping others and serving the Lord to have time for such.