Sometimes the ordinary moments of life stick with you. I (Jennifer) recall running errands with my mom when I was seven years old. We had stopped at the bank and, as was customary at the time, my mom gave her name as “Mrs.” and then my dad’s first and last name. The combination of “Mrs.” and my dad’s first name sounded strange to my ears, and I laughed out loud in genuine amazement. “Mom, that’s Dad’s name,” I insisted, baffled. “You have your own name!” I still recall how she and the bank teller looked back at me with surprise. Our exchange turned out to be a microcosm of a shift in generational perspectives taking place across 20th-century America.
Long before American culture began grappling with how best to create space for the given names of women, Scripture was ahead of the curve. In fact, Scripture consistently defied the cultural practices of its own times by recording the names of ordinary women throughout its pages. Recording the names of ordinary women in the grand story of God’s creation and redemption is one of the most unsung, remarkable examples of the Bible’s textual coherence.
Of course, some women’s stories are more accessible in Scripture than others. Without the benefit of expertise in the New Testament, any mention of “Phoebe” (Rom. 16:1–2) is more readily connected in our cultural context with the lovable, ditzy blond musician from the NBC hit show Friends than the woman called out in Romans. A faith that seeks understanding will always probe the text further. Who was Phoebe, and what was her relationship to this most influential letter?
The Purest Gospel
All Scripture is God-breathed, but not every book of the Bible has had the same kind of reception and influence in the history of the church as Romans. It is hard to quantify the letter’s seismic impact on the theology of the church and the formation of its leaders. Reading Romans has never been for the faint of heart.
In the history of Christianity, Romans has a track record of transforming some of the most significant church leaders. When Augustine heard the words “take up and read,” at that life-changing moment, he opened the Bible to Romans 13:13. Medieval Scholasticism was shaped by Romans through Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, the theological textbook of the medieval period until Thomas Aquinas made his mark.
Growing interest in the Pauline Epistles during the Reformation generated the publication of over 70 new commentaries on Romans alone with the benefit of the printing press. Martin Luther’s own transformative experience involved his reading of Romans 1:17 on the issue of righteousness. He stressed the significance of the epistle in his preface:
This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is the purest gospel. It is well worth a Christian’s while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes. . . . [I]t is in itself a bright light, almost bright enough to illumine the entire Scripture.
Centuries later, hearing Luther’s preface to Romans at Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, led to John Wesley’s heart being “strangely warmed” and his faith transformed. Further down the line, Swiss theologian Karl Barth’s shift from liberal Protestantism to the “strange new world of the Bible” was encapsulated by the publication of his Römerbrief, famously described as “a bombshell on the theologians’ playground.”
When we think about Romans, we associate the book with church history titans from Augustine to Barth. Yet the first person to interpret and explain Romans was the one who bore the letter, and her name was Phoebe.
Trailblazing the Roman Roads
The woman Paul entrusted with such an important task is mentioned in only two verses of the New Testament, but with that one reference, Paul leaves a treasure of insight into the early Christian community.
As he reaches the end of his weighty theological letter, his tone becomes incredibly personal. He mentions 29 people, greeting 28 of them and commending one: Phoebe. To commend someone is to vouch for them, stand with them, attest that they can be trusted. Paul throws his apostolic weight behind Phoebe.
By what he says, it seems that she has proven herself worthy of it. She is a believer in Christ (he calls her “our sister”), a member of the community “in the Lord,” and worthy of being received as a saint. Paul gives specificity to her faith by describing her with two titles: diakonos and prostatis.
What do these terms mean? What is Phoebe’s role?
The first term, diakonos, from which we get our English word deacon, is the masculine form of the word servant and certainly indicates that she has made it a regular practice to help others, as Jesus recommends (Mark 9:35; 10:43) and demonstrates (Rom. 15:8). It might also indicate that she held the office of deacon in her church in Cenchreae, a port city just a few miles east of Corinth. This is the same term Paul used in 1 Timothy to describe the qualifications for this important role (3:8–13). Whether your English translation says “servant” or “deacon,” the only translation not fitting to the New Testament is “deaconess.” A feminized form of the character trait or office does not exist in Biblical literature. Later developments that posited the role of a female deaconess as subordinate to a male deacon had no grounding in Scripture. All servants or deacons, whether male or female, equally follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who came to serve all.
The second term, prostatis, appears only here in the New Testament, but it is widely known in the Greco-Roman world. As it is used in the Greek version of the Old Testament, it can indicate a leader. Paul says, however, that she was a prostatis to him, and he is normally adamant about his co-leadership with others under God. The use of this term could be as basic as stating that Phoebe helped others, but most agree that Paul is using it as was common in the secular texts of his day: She is a benefactor, one who uses her wealth and social influence to advocate for others.
All of this leads to a further question: What was Phoebe’s role specifically in Rome?
Interpreters widely agree that by placing her first in his list, Paul introduces Phoebe as the bearer of the letter. While in our own context we are grateful for the work of our postal service employees, we do not need to know their background in order to trust that we can accept the mail from them. That Paul spends several sentences to describe Phoebe and uses several emphatic phrases to admonish the Christians in Rome to treat her well indicates that she is more than just a mail carrier who drops off the scroll. She will play some role in how they experience the letter, so Paul wants them to trust her.
One line of thought, popularized by N. T. Wright, is that Phoebe, as the letter carrier, would have read the letter as well. He states, “The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents.”
Scholars including Peter Head have questioned the first part of Wright’s conclusion. In his analysis of ancient letters, Head suggests that there is little evidence that the carrier was the reader of the letter. Instead, members of the group receiving the letter would read it out loud.
Does that return Phoebe to the sidelines as a silent helper?
Not in the least. Head acknowledges that even if she did not read the letter, she “would have had a role in explaining the contents of Romans.” She would have been present, as Paul’s representative, to answer questions about it. People have had a few questions about Romans through the years, to put it mildly, and Phoebe would have been the first to respond to those.
The uncertainty about the words used to describe Phoebe should not overshadow the consensus on her role. Wrangling over what offices Phoebe might have held distracts us from the more signifi cant reality of these verses: Paul trusted her to explain Romans. What do we miss when we do not acknowledge the importance of Phoebe’s role?
From Rome to the Reformation
Although Paul paired Phoebe’s name with the masculine form of “servant” (diakonos), the term was quickly feminized to “deaconess” by church tradition. Importantly, both John Chrysostom and Origen interpreted Phoebe’s mention in Romans as evidence that women were ordained to the particular church office of deacon.
The female diaconate persisted among the offices of the church to varying extents until the sixth century. Radegunde (circa 520–587 ), who contributed to the expansion of Christianity in the sixth century among the Franks, was one of the last notable female deacons ordained by a bishop. In the medieval period, the office of deacon lost further distinction as it became subsumed in the ordination process to the Roman Catholic (male) priesthood.
By the time of the Reformation, Phoebe gained prominence again in part because the book of Romans garnered disproportionate attention from biblical commentators. Moreover, church traditions where preachers expounded Scripture verse by verse (called lectio continua) were sure to engage her directly. In the end, it was John Calvin’s Geneva that led the way in restoring the female diaconate among the Protestant tradition.
The four-fold office of the church—pastor, elder, deacon, doctor—represented the backbone of Calvin’s ecclesiology, and women were not excluded from these ranks in the context of the diaconate, according to Calvin’s Institutes. As “lay ecclesiastical ministers,” deacons were distinct from elders (presbyters). Furthermore, Calvin took from Romans 12:8 the idea to divide the diaconate into two distinct roles: almsgiving to the poor and care of the poor and sick. Calvin attributed the second role to the work of widows, according to his reading of 1 Tim. 5:9–10, a passage used by the Roman Catholic tradition as a basis for monastic vows. Establishment of a diaconate open to women served the city of Geneva well as the city navigated how to care for thousands upon thousands of religious refugees passing through the city from all over Europe and especially France.
Because reform under Calvin involved clarifying the responsibilities of its various leaders and distinguishing them from political rulers , the diaconate was a church office, and he believed it should include women. Although female deacons were not limited to Geneva, as Elsie McKee’s work has pointed out, “the Calvinist Reformed diaconate was the only Protestant or Anabaptist church order that included the teaching (if not often the practice) of a (subordinate) place for women in the regular offices of ministry.” Calvin’s Geneva is, therefore, a model and an outlier for what it means to take Phoebe seriously.
Phoebe’s significance was further highlighted in French Reformed Bibles. Sections called colophons were printed at the end of each epistle of the New Testament to provide information about the authorship and geography of each letter. From the 16th century through the 18th century, Phoebe’s special relationship to Romans was described in these colophons as letter carrier, servant, or deaconess for the church. She is the only female to be remembered this way in the tradition of Reformed New Testament colophons.
Pass It On
Although dispute over the significance of Phoebe persists in scholarship today, wide agreement over Phoebe’s letter-carrier role moves the needle toward greater clarity in ways that cannot be ignored. For one, the conclusion that Paul barred all women from exegetical and theological discussion, and even instruction, is ruled out. What that looks like will play out differently in churches and institutions of differing commitments , but Phoebe’s story will not allow any Christian who seeks to understand Scripture in its historical setting to believe that being a woman disqualifies someone from the realm of theology. If Paul did not disparage women’s ability to converse about the most intricate of theological documents, neither should we.
The inclusion of Phoebe’s name and role as a gospel bearer is another reminder to the church today of how Scripture highlights women as integral and faithful contributors to God’s plan of redemption through his Son, Jesus Christ. When Paul introduced Phoebe to the church of Rome and encouraged the believers there to receive her with honor, he was also introducing us to her today. We too are being asked to welcome what she brings. As Calvin writes, “it would be unbecoming [to] the servants of Christ not to show her honor and kindness. And since it behooves us to embrace in love all the members of Christ, we ought surely to regard and especially to love and honor those who perform a public office in the Church.”
Moreover, by entrusting Phoebe with the communication of this letter, Paul established a precedent that we follow today—whether we recognize it or not—every time we listen to Scripture being read and explained. We hear God’s Word proclaimed through the voices of others, just as Phoebe spoke and explained Paul’s words to the church of Rome. Anyone who takes up Romans and shares it with others walks in the footsteps of its first interpreter, Phoebe.
What is Paul communicating in Romans? In this one letter, he is aiming to respond to the local church’s issues and work out his own, but he responds to both—their challenges of intermingling Jew and Gentile and his of faithfully proclaiming the gospel—with the same consistent affirmation: God is trustworthy.
Romans is well known for its towering spiritual truth: God can be trusted with the problem of sin, the threat of death, and the ultimate salvation of all. Since this is true, Paul also argues in Romans that God can be trusted with the more mundane realities of division and anxiety. The message of Romans is that God can be trusted to handle them all.
And that message finds resonance in the messenger. God is trustworthy, so Paul can trust a somewhat surprising person to deliver this, his most influential message. He neither argues for her nor defends her skill or wisdom. His introduction is powerful but succinct. No special pleading necessary. He trusts her because she trusts God, and that is enough. When we all, no matter who we are, trust in the trustworthy God, we like Phoebe can pass it on as well.
The truth is that everyone who has put faith in Christ is charged with passing on the Good News. By this act, as the priesthood of all believers, we live into what it means to be connected across time to one another in the body of Christ and by the power of the living God. Our daughters and our sons both should be fully equipped to know the hope that lies within them, because God will send them into the world as gospel-bearers, where they will be called to answer pressing questions about our sacred texts.
When we pass on the Good News, we are not only living into the legacy of writers like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We are also living into the legacy of Mary Magdalene to the upper room, Priscilla to Apollos, and Phoebe to the church of Rome.
We too act as letter carriers within an apostolic chain that reaches back to the gift of God’s revelation, which is the basis for our witness to the hope that we have in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jennifer Powell McNutt is the Franklin S. Dyrness Chair in Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College, parish associate at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and co-founder of McNuttshell Ministries Inc.
Amy Beverage Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and associate rector of St. Mark’s Church in Geneva, Illinois.
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