Although she’s only mentioned once in the Bible – for 2 verses Phoebe is a significant woman, and a great example of how doing some detective work in scripture can pay off and teach us things we’d have normally skipped over
A bit of Geography might help to start with:
Paul is sending this letter to the believers in Rome from Corinth, an important trading city in Greece. At the crossroads between Asia and Europe, Corinth was the ‘third city’ of the entire Roman Empire and it had a reputation for two things; money and debauchery. One of the major features of the city was the temple of the goddess Aphrodite, with its hundreds of shrine prostitutes. Combine that with a city full of traders, sailors, travellers and you get a melting pot of every sort of immorality imaginable. In ancient plays Corinthians were always portrayed as drunken letches, and despite its wealth and influence Corinth was a dark place spiritually. Cenchreae (Where Phoebe was from) was one of the two ports of this mighty city – with all the problems you might associate with a port but, it would seem, with a lively Christian congregation and a woman whose commendation from Paul has lasted for Millennia!
Look very carefully at the text, underline the things that strike you... what can we learn from just these 2 verses? Use the chart below to help you think it through. (N.B. You might want to make a note of any questions you have that you can’t answer from the text)
What strikes you?
Application to your circumstances
Action to take?
The Greek word ‘diakonos’ (which is what Paul uses) can mean:
“To run errands, waiter at table, attend to, aid, serve, teach, pastor, minister to”
Phoebe was quite a woman. Most likely trusted by Paul to deliver this letter to the church in Rome, she had made the journey at risk of both assault and persecution. Phoebe was probably a single woman or widow as unusually, her husband isn’t mentioned which suggets she didn’t have one. How she made her money we have no idea but we do know that after becoming in Christian she used her wealth to bless the church and Paul himself, being described as a ‘benefactor’ or wealthy sponsor. Generous with her finances and her time, Phoebe was one of the leaders of the church in Cenechreae - a deacon - serving the Lord by blessing and leading the Christians there. Since she was most likely an astute business woman Phoebe seems to have ‘transferred her skills’ into church life but understood that Christian leadership is about serving, not dominating. Paul recommends her to the Roman church in the same way he did Tychicus(Col 4.7-9), Epaphroditus (Phil 2.25-30), and others of his companions who travelled around the Mediterranean teaching and encouraging the early churches on his behalf. She seems to have been powerful, influential, generous and sacrificial – qualities she used for God’s glory rather than her own.
Phoebe is also controversial; she presents a theological problem for those who want to argue that the church should ban all women from leadership. Despite some of the ‘challenging passages’ Paul wrote about women and their roles, here is a woman he is commending in her leadership. How do we make sense of that? Is Paul a hypocrite?
Well, there have always been women leaders in God’s kingdom. In the Old Testament we see Miriam, Deborah and Huldah. In the New Testament we have Phoebe, Priscilla, Lydia, Chloe and Junia. In an ancient culture that was very much ‘a man’s world’ God appointed women leaders from time to time; brave, servant hearted, obedient women he could trust - just like the brave, servant hearted, trustworthy men he called to lead. Paul’s letters must be considered carefully, looked at in the light of the whole of scripture rather than chunks lifted out and misquoted. Was he addressing a specific issue in a specific church? Is that a cultural instruction or an instruction for all Christians for all time? We mostly don’t expect women to cover their heads today... but Paul specifies that. Similarly, we mostly don’t ban men with long hair from worship... but he said that too! We need to think and pray carefully about Paul’s letters not just use them as simple proof texts, it’s a bit more complicated than that!
Phoebe might be unusual, but she gives us a glimpse of the qualities leaders demonstrated in the early church regardless of gender, and her courage, faithfulness and generosity are something to aspire to for all of us. I’d like to be commended in these terms – wouldn’t you?
© Ruth Perrin 2009. Last revised on 27 October 2009
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Cloud of Witnesses is a series of Bible studies on the men and women of scripture. You'll find everyone from Gideon and Andrew through to Tamar and Tabitha.
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Ruth Perrin, the author, is on staff at King's Church Durham and holds an MA in Theology and Ministry.
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