Romans 16v1-16 – Part 2

… Continued from Part 1…

16:1–2: Commendation of Phoebe

Feminist interpretations on this passage have shed useful light on these verses, raising many questions that must continue to be explored. Paul’s commendation of ‘our sister’ Phoebe as a diakonos (διάκονος) of the church in Cenchreae can be interpreted in at least two ways.

open quoteswhat is clear is that she served in some significant leadership role in the congregation at Cenchreaeclose quotes

Firstly, that ‘Deacon’ is used in this verse to denote that Phoebe is being commended for acts of service, but that this is does not suppose that she “occupied or exercised what amounted to an ecclesiastical office.”1 Evidence for this usage can be found elsewhere within the letter. For example, when talking of his collection for the church in Jerusalem, an immensely practical task, Paul describes himself as “ministering (διακονῶν / diakonon) to the saints.”2 In this context, it would not appear that a diakonos does not need to refer to an official office. Moo posits two levels of authority operating within the early church, whereby women participated within the ministry of the church but in a ‘private’ rather than ‘public’ sense. Therefore, Paul’s use of diakonos (διάκονος) here is being used in an unofficial, private and non-authoritative sense.3 Those who read the text through feminist lenses have rightly questioned this approach. Coming from quite different perspectives, both Scholar and Schüssler-Fiorenza argue that to separate out authority like this is not only anachronistic but also overlooks the fact that “in the house church the ‘private and public’ spheres of the Church overlap.”4 Furthermore, there appears to be no direct evidence for this approach to ecclesial authority within the Pauline corpus.

The second interpretation of this reference accepts some level of recognized position within the church at Cenchreae. We know that the office of diakonos already existed in some form, although how developed, and how similar to its later meaning, is unclear.5 In Romans 12 Paul includes the gift of diakonia (διακονίᾳ) alongside that of prophecy, teaching, and exhortation implying that the office of deacon has a teaching and liturgical function within church life.6 Timothy is called ‘our brother’ by Paul and as God’s diakonos.7 The author of Colossians recommends Tychicus as ‘our beloved brother’ and ‘faithful diakonos’ (4v7).8

The qualification of diakonos coupled with ‘of the church’ does seem to suggest that Phoebe held the office of deacon at Cenchreae as a co-worker of Paul as described it in 1 Tim 3:8–12 (cf. Phil 1:1).9

Phoebe is also described as the Prostatis (προστάτις) “of many” in verse 2. Cohick cites the masculine form (προστάτης) being employed by Justin Martyr to denote the person presiding at communion.10 Yet whilst the pastoral epistles do use this word to describe church officials who preside over the congregation,11 the comparison between Phoebe as the patron “of many” rather than “of the church”12 (as compared to verse 1) suggests that Cohick is overstretching the text to fit what she would like it to say. The meaning of Paul here, is more likely to reflect her role as a ‘benefactor’ of many therefore. Nonetheless, in describing Phoebe as a ‘patron’ or ‘benefactor’ does point to her having considerable wealth, independence and, evidently, freedom to travel.

There is no indication of the nature of Phoebe’s business or how long she intended to stay in Rome, but what is clear is that she served “in some significant leadership role in the congregation at Cenchreae.”13 What is unclear from this text, however, is the extent to which this leadership was equal in authority to that of men.

… Continue to Part 3…

  1. See for example Murray (1965), p. 226  ↩

  2. Romans 15:25, 31. See also Acts 6:1–2; Col 1:7  ↩

  3. Scholar (2003), p. 110 commentating on Moo  ↩

  4. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 71 and Scholar (2003), p. 110 commentating on Moo: Interpretation p. 208  ↩

  5. e.g. Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8, 11  ↩

  6. Romans 12:6–8. See also Acts 6:4; 20:24; 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Tim 4:5  ↩

  7. 1 Thess 3v2  ↩

  8. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 64  ↩

  9. Moo (1996), p. 914  ↩

  10. Cohick (2002), p. 644  ↩

  11. e.g. 1 Tim 3:4–5; 5:17  ↩

  12. Moo (1996), p. 916  ↩

  13. Gaventa (1992), p. 320  ↩

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