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Was Phoebe a deacon?

The NIV/NLT translators seem to think deacon:

Romans 16:1 (NIV) I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

Furthermore, when I read the qualifications for a deacon in 1 Timothy 3, I see that a deacon should clearly be a man:

1 Timothy 3:8–12 (ESV) Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well.

Most other translations call Phoebe a "servant" instead of "deacon", however the greek word for deacon in both passages is διάκονος. I'm not sure what to make of this.

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    Well the Greek word διάκονος just means servant. Servant = deacon = minister. Whether that means Phoebe had the formal office of a deacon is very debated.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 15, 2014 at 14:16
  • I think 1 Timothy is talking about a formal office--why else would Paul give a list of qualifications?
    – LCIII
    Aug 15, 2014 at 14:21
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    It could be argued that they're qualifications any Christian wanting to serve in any capacity should be aiming to meet. But yes, most people do interpret 1 Tim as referring to a formal office. That doesn't mean Romans 16:1 is or isn't.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 15, 2014 at 14:26
  • @curiousdannii My main wonder is around the qualifications being male specific when Phoebe is surely the name of a woman.
    – LCIII
    Aug 15, 2014 at 14:43
  • It's possible that "servant" (διάκονος) was originally used in a relatively informal way in Romans (in the mid-50s), but by the time of 1 Timothy (certainly later, perhaps not even written by Paul) had developed into an official position which could only be held by a man. Aug 15, 2014 at 15:10

2 Answers 2

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There is a very detailed examination of this issue by Margaret Mowczko from an egalitarian perspective (answering in the affirmative) posted here:

Was Phoebe a Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea? (Part 1)

and here:

Was Phoebe a Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea? (Part 2)

While the usage of the word διάκονος in scripture is discussed at some length, the strongest arguments in favor are the extra-biblical witnesses that there were women known as deaconesses/ministers in the early Church of which Phoebe was a noteable example:

Pliny the younger, who was governor of Pontus and Bithynia in 111-113, wrote to Trajan saying that he had tortured two female slaves “who were being called ministers” (quae ministrae dicebantur). (Letters 10.96.8) Elizabeth McCabe (2009) notes that the Latin word ministra is synonymous with the Latin word diāconus, and that a diāconus can be defined as a minister of the church, that is, a deacon. Pliny believed that the two tortured women were official ministers, or deacons, of the church.

Origen lived in the years 185-253, a time when ordained female deacons were active in the church. (Campbell 2009:61) In around 246 Origen wrote his commentary on Romans (the oldest commentary on Romans that still survives) and it is apparent that he believed Phoebe to have been an official female deacon. In reference to Romans 16:1-2 he declared that “This passage teaches by apostolic authority that women also were appointed (constitiu) in the ministry of the church (in ministerio ecclesiae), in which office Phoebe was placed at the church at Cenchrea . . . And therefore this passage teaches two things equally and is to be interpreted . . . to mean that women are to be considered ministers (haberi . . . feminas minstras) in the church.

As well as literary evidence, there is epigraphic evidence which indicates that Phoebe was famous and regarded as an ordained deacon by the Early Church. A funerary stele from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, and dated to the latter half of the 4th century, or possibly later, reads: “Here lies the slave and bride of Christ, Sophia the deacon (hē diakonos), the second Phoebe (hē deutera Phoibē), who fell asleep in peace . . .” (Horsely)[11] To be referred to as “the second Phoebe” was clearly meant as an honour for the deacon Sophia being commemorated on the stele.

A somewhat lengthy but highly pertinent quote addressing 1 Timothy 3*:

Diakonoi are mentioned in First Timothy, one of the later New Testament letters.[8] The diakonoi of 1 Timothy 3:8ff were probably official deacons. What is less clear is who the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11 were. Whether these women are female deacons or the wives of deacons is debated, but, considering that up until the fourth century there was no separate word for female deacons, it could be that the female deacons were simply called “women” here to distinguish them from the male deacons.

There are indications in the text which suggest that these women were female deacons and not deacon’s wives. For instance, there is no mention of the wives of overseers (or bishops); and it doesn’t make sense that the writer of 1 Timothy would regard the moral requirements of deacons’ wives to be worthy of mention, but not those of overseers’ wives. Also, if deacons’ wives were intended, we would expect a definite article or a genitive pronoun in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3: 11 (which could be translated as “the wives” or “their wives” respectively.) However, it is the use of the word “likewise” (hōsautōs) which indicates that a distinct but similar group is being addressed in verse 11. (Giles 1989:61)

“Likewise” (hōsautōs) is found at the beginning of 1 Timothy 3:8 and 1 Timothy 3:11. Massey (1989:61) writes that “likewise” is “customarily used to introduce the second and third entities in a series.” He suggests that the use of hōsautōs “seems to place the three groups [overseers, male deacons, and women] in categories of a similar nature.” That is, the people belonging to these three groups are involved in somewhat similar ministries and require similar moral qualifications.[10] Taking the word “likewise” into account we can see that verses 8-10 refer to the male deacons, verse 11 specifically refers to the female deacons, and verses 12-13 probably refer to both the male and female deacons.[11]

John Chrysostom weighed in on the debate about whether the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 were deacons or not. In his Homily 11 on 1 Timothy he wrote: “Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should he introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of deaconesses.” In response to 1 Timothy 3:12 (including the idiomatic phrase “a one woman man”)[12] he added “This must be understood therefore to relate to Deaconesses. For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church . . .”


*This is a passage where a masculinist bias in a majority of English translations is particularly evident - I personally find it fascinating and illuminating to read a translation that preserves the gender neutrality of the original Greek.

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  • @FMShyanguya There was a citation provided - have you checked the source? (I believe at an academic level, a citation does actually constitute evidence unless a review demonstrates the citation is incorrect in some way). The reference in full for your convenience is: Campbell, Joan Cecelia, Phoebe: Patron and Emissary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009) Aug 16, 2014 at 10:37
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    @bruisedreed You lost me. And how is this a biblical basis?
    – user13992
    Aug 16, 2014 at 22:04
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    This is a very good answer, but it's very incomplete. It only gives one side of the argument without addressing the possible counter arguments. It would be much better if you gave at least a summary of the various most common interpretations rather than just giving the one that you find most convincing. Aug 17, 2014 at 1:14
  • Thought I'd take the time to find a post of your's to upvote. I better see you use those close votes now.
    – user3961
    Aug 19, 2014 at 6:05
  • @user13992 The biblical basis was chiefly given in the question - Romans 16:1, what remains is to validate the translation choice of the NIV/NLT (done with recourse to extra-biblical sources) and to explain how 1 Timothy 3:8-12 actually provides support for the role of deaconesses rather than the negation implied by a superficial interpretation. Mar 29, 2016 at 5:06
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Before you read my answer, I want to make clear that I have no formal training in Biblical studies or the Greek language (which may become obvious as you read my answer). I use a couple of different Greek/English translators.

https://thekingsbible.com/Bible/54/3

https://biblehub.com/interlinear/1_timothy/3-12.htm

I’m just a construction worker with a high school degree. But I love the Lord and have an insatiable desire to draw closer to Him through a better understanding of His word.

Philippians 1:9

I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding.

This is the KJV translation of 1 Timothy 3:10

And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless.

The key word is “deacon”. Below is how it is written in Greek, with the KJV translation of each word directly below the Greek.

 De    houtos   kai     proton   dokimazō    eita    diakoneō    ousa    anegklētos

 And   these    also    first     prove      then     deacon     being   blameless

Couple things interesting about this…

The KJV says….”use the office of deacon”. But the Greek does not say that, it only says diakoneō. When translating from one language to another, it’s acceptable (even required sometimes) to add some English words in order for it to make sense. Because the word for word translation is sometimes hard to understand in English. (And these also first prove then deacon being blameless) But, they have to be careful not to distort or change the original thought.

The other thing to notice about 1 Timothy 3, is the verse before 3:10…..verse 3:8. This verse uses a different Greek word, which is also translated “deacon”.

1 Timothy 3:8 (KJV)

   Hōsautōs     diakonos 

   Likewise       deacons 

It's similar to “diakoneō”, but it is slightly different….. “diakonos”. One is a noun and one is a verb (A little further down I will show why that is important).

So, is ”use the office of deacon” an example of a distorted translation? Was there even such a thing as “office of deacon” back when Paul wrote this letter to Timothy? We hear “office of deacon” today, and we think pastor or preacher, but is that what Paul meant?

If “diakonos” is a “deacon” (like church pastor), then Romans 16:1 becomes a big topic of discussion, because Phobe (a female) is referred to as a “diakonos” in Romans 16:1

 Phoibē      hēmōn    adelphē     ho      diakonos    ho    ekklēsia
 Phoebe       our      sister     the      deacon     the    church

It also brings John 2 into the discussion. This is the story of the first miracle of Jesus, when he turns the water into wine. The verse of interest here is John 2:9

John 2:9 (KJV)

 ho     diakonos             antleō      ho      hudatos      eidō
 the    servants     which    drew       the      water       knew

If diakonos is a deacon, then did “deacons” draw the water? No, because at this point in history there was no church to be the deacon of. So why is it translated “servant”? Because another translation of diakonos is “servant” or “minister”. Not minister in the sense of “pastor”, but minister in the sense of “I will minister to your needs”.

Now “deacon”, like “minister”, is not necessarily an incorrect translation of diakonos, because a deacon is a servant, a servant of the church. A deacon is defined as an “office of ministry” (usually ministering to the needs of the poor, needy and hungry). But, viewing these words “deacon” and “minister” through modern day English, we think pastor or leader. So it can be misleading.

But “servant” is a word that can be placed into these verses, which makes sense contextually, and is understandable with both the time it was written, and with modern English.....and without contradicting another verse. But, before I do that, there is one more grammatical clarification that needs to be pointed out, and that is the (2) similar words I discussed above:

---Diakonos is a noun, meaning “a servant”

---Dikoneo is a verb, meaning “to serve”

So, using the translation of “servant”, let’s go back and see what those verses look like

1 Timothy 3:10

And let these also first be proved; then let them serve (diakoneo), being found blameless.

1 Timothy 3:8 (KJV)

Likewise must the servants (diakonos) be....

Romans 16:1 (KJV)

I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant (diakonos) ofthe church*

John 2:9 (KJV)

….the servants (diakonos) which drew the water knew

On a side note…..

You will notice that the KJV translation of Romans 16: 1 already has diakonos translated as “servant”, which should cause us to raise an eyebrow. Because in 1 Timothy, which is talking about the qualities of a church leader, the KJV translates diakonos as “deacon. But, in Romans 16:1, when diakonos is talking about a female….they translate it as “servant”.

No, I do not agree with this situational translation. This could arguably be seen as a male biased translation. Meaning, the predominate view of the time has shaded the meaning towards their view.

But in fairness, I would also like to point out that the modern-day NLT translates diakonos, in Romans 16:1, as deacon. Yet, in John 2:9, they translate diakonos as servant. So, is this the opposite of a male biased translation? Meaning, is this modern-day NLT translation trying to appease the masses, or “shade the meaning towards the predominate view of the time” (Egalitarian), by translating Romans 16:1 as “deacon”?

Or, are both of these examples of an honest attempt to translate Greek, (a 3,000 year old language) into an understandable modern day English? I think both could be true, and that’s why the preservation of the old text is so important.

But, let’s go back to the translation of “servant”.

In 1 Timothy 3, I focused on just two verses, in an effort to start to wrap our minds around the word diakonos. But let’s take a closer look at the whole chapter, because 1 Timothy 3 discusses the qualities of church leaders.

Starting with Verse 8, where we first see the word diakonos, here is what it looks like when it is translated “servant”

8 Likewise must the servants be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; 9 Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. 10 And let these also first be proved; then let them serve, being found blameless. 11 Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. 12 Let the servants be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. 13 For they that have served well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

Before we move on, there is another verse tucked in here that is also a big part of the debate….Verse 12.

12 Let the deacons servants be the husbands of one wife….

When translated as “deacon”, one side of the debate points to this as part of the validation that pastors need to be men (husbands of one wife). The other side points to Romans 16:1 and says that Paul refers to Phebe (a female) as a deacon. But, when it is translated with the word “servant” it removes these verses from the debate.

What is left, is what appears to be a contradiction in the Bible. Because even when you translate it as “servant”, how can Phebe (a female) be a servant….when 1 Timothy 3:12 says that a servant is to be “the husband of one wife.”

Again, it comes down to the difficulty of translating Greek into English.

Greek does not have a separate word for “woman” and “wife”. “Gune” is the Greek word for both “wife” and “woman”. So, its translation is determined by its context. (just in case someone feels as though this is another example of the male dominated society of the times…..”aner” also meant “husband” or “man”, depending on how it was used).

So let’s take this same group of verses and move forward with the translation of “servant”, but now look at the translation of “gune” (and aner).

8 Likewise must the servants be grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre; 9 Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience. 10 And let these also first be proved; then let them serve, being found blameless. 11 Even so must women be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. 12 Let the servants be the husbands (aner) of one wife (gune), ruling their children and their own houses well. 13 For they that have served well purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus .

In verse 12 we leave “aner” and “gune” translated as “husband” and “wife”, because of the context in which it is used……it’s immediately followed by “ruling their children well”

But, in verse 11, if we translate “gune” as “women” it now gives the qualities of a female servant, and coincides with Romans 16:1:

I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church

Now let’s look at the verses before 1 Timothy 3:8-13.

1 Timothy 3:1-7

1This is a true saying, if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; 3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; 4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; 5 (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) 6 Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

“the office of bishop” is probably not the best translation, because again, the question is…..was there an “office of Bishop” at the time that Paul wrote this? The Greek word used is “Episkopē”. Another translation besides bishop is “overseer” (or elder).

Hē         pistos    logos    ei     tis     oregomai        episkopē
This is a  true     saying,   if    a man     desire     the office of a bishop

On a side note, the definition of the Greek word “tis” is not “man”….it means “a certain one” or “someone”. But “man” is not an unreasonable translation, because the very next verse says that a bishop (or an overseer) is to be “the husband of one wife”. Again, context is important when translating (but they could have said….if someone desire the office of bishop)

But here is the significant part of these verses…

These verses (1 thru 7) are clearly a list of qualities for a church leader..….very similar to verses 8-13 that give a list of qualities for a church “servant” (as a matter of fact, when you put them side by side….they’re almost identical). But there are (2) important differences.

• The end of verse 2 says, “apt to teach”. The qualities for a church servant, and the qualities for a church leader, are very similar….. but “apt to teach” is only listed under the qualities of a church leader….or overseer.

• There are no qualities listed for women under church leader. But there are qualities listed for women under church servant.

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  • Up-Voted +1. Yes, agreed. Phoebe was a servant of the church, as some women were, but they did not perform the functions restricted to ministers, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Well argued and well presented.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 23, 2023 at 1:27
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    I hope my answer did not come across as argumentative. I understand that this is a very difficult topic and that @bruised answer does not align with what I have shared , but my goal was to provide information about the OP's question (even though it's 8 year old). --Peace
    – matt
    Mar 23, 2023 at 14:12
  • When I say 'argument' I mean the laying out of a cogent and informed progression of statements that support a thesis. I did not imply that the answer was 'argumentative' which is another thing altogether : )
    – Nigel J
    Mar 23, 2023 at 23:52

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