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.

  • 2
    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 '14 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 '14 at 14:21
  • 1
    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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 15:10

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.

  • a time when ordained female deacons were active in the church quote makes this statement but does not show any evidence that this was an ordained ministry e.g. ordination rites that have come down to us, etc.
    – user13992
    Aug 16 '14 at 7:45
  • @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 '14 at 10:37
  • 2
    @bruisedreed You lost me. And how is this a biblical basis?
    – user13992
    Aug 16 '14 at 22:04
  • 1
    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 '14 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.
    – fгedsbend
    Aug 19 '14 at 6:05

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