PHOEBE THE DEACONESS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
In May of 1972 deacons from Baptist churches throughout Virginia gathered for a special conference dealing with the work of the deacon. The leader noted a number of women in the crowd. He welcomed them as wives of the deacons. He was quickly set straight when it was pointed out to him that they were full fledged deacons sent by their churches to the conference. He was surprised, as are many Baptists, that deacon is no longer a male term or office. Scores of Southern Baptist Churches now have women deacons.
Leon McBeth in his book title women in Baptist life estimates that the number of female deacons in Baptist churches run into the thousands, and in many cases they are the chairman of the board, or rather, the chairperson. A number of churches have changed their bylaws to require that 50% of the deacons be women. This is only new in the sense that it is a trend of the times. There are records of women deacons that go back into the 1920's in Southern Baptist Churches. It has only been since 1965, however, that many churches have changed their policy from men only on the deacon board.
Why this change? There are a number of factors that caused the church to change. One is the change in society. Daughters now get as good an education as sons. This means they grow up to be as well informed and prepared to be of service in the church. Women now work in every field, and they lead men in all kinds of ways in industry. These things have affected the life of the church. Secondly, the main reason for change is new insight into the Word of God. Biblical research has caused many Christians to change their minds about God's will for women in the church.
The idea that the Bible requires women to be kept in silence in the church is fast eroding as the Bible is searched for light on women. The negative restrictive passages of Paul are being seen in the light of Paul's positive passages, and they are being seen in context. The general positive attitude of Paul toward women is becoming a focus. Modern Baptists are discovering that they have been victims of a tradition detrimental to over half of the members of the church. Intensive research into the New Testament reveals that God does recognize the other half of the human race.
One of the key passages that becomes a foundation for what is happening today is right here in Rom. 16. Nowhere in all the Bible is there a chapter that does more to exalt the role of women in the church. In this chapter we see Paul not dealing with controversial issues, but as a loving leader showing how he really felt about women. It is something of a shock to those who think of Paul as one with a negative view of women, for here he treats them as equals, and as fellow laborers in the work of Christ. This chapter forces us to go back to the negative passages and find out what is so wrong in those contexts that Paul seems to be so down on those that he is so up on here.
He begins this chapter of greetings to 26 individuals with a commendation of a woman, and Phoebe is her name. It means shining, and she was, indeed, a light in that dark world. Here was a woman that Paul loved, respected, and trusted on the same level as he did any of his male partners in the ministry. All agree that Phoebe was the carrier of the Epistle of Romans to Rome. Paul let a woman carry his letter that changed history, but more important, God let her carry this letter which was to become one of the most important parts of his revealed Word to the church. Here was responsibility on the highest level entrusted to this godly woman. Any idea that Paul was in any way opposed to women serving the cause of Christ is based on ignorance of his clear statements.
In Phil. 4:3 he wrote, "...help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the Gospel." And we know they were not just washing dishes. Paul did not hesitate to work with women, and to give them tasks of the highest level of importance. There is no support from Paul to keep women limited to the kitchen. They work side by side with Paul in the Gospel, and that means they were witnessing and sharing the faith in preaching and teaching.
Phoebe was the name of the moon in the ancient world. It was the object of pagan worship, but this Phoebe had found new light in Christ, and she was now shining for Him. She did not change her name when she became a Christian. Many Christians have pagan names. It is the life and not the label that needs changing. Phoebe made a radical change, and she became a servant in the church of Cenchrea. Some translations have it that she was a deaconess of that church. The Greek word is diakomos, which is the very same word that is translated deacon when it refers to specific men. Paul is the main user of this word in the New Testament. Out of 30 uses of the word 22 of them are by Paul. In every case but one this word is made to refer to ministers or deacons. 18 times it is translated minister, and 3 times deacon. Only once in all of Paul's uses of the word is it translated servant. This one exception happens to be when Paul uses it to refer to a woman, and that woman was Phoebe.
Is it any wonders that modern women who study Greek begin to get suspicious about this, and resent the fact that tradition rather than honest dealing with the Scripture has influenced how this word is translated in its one reference to a woman? It is not just women who have protested this discrimination in Bible translation. Back in 1891 Louis Albert Banks, one of the great evangelical preachers of the day, and author of numerous books, made this strong statement in his book The People's Christ: "It is one of the strange illustrations of the power of prejudice and conservatism on really good men. For if this same word had been used to describe the church office of a man, it would have been translated deacon......But because it touches the vexed question of a woman's right to official relations to the church, it was impossible to bring the word deaconess nearer than the margin."
He was making the point that men refuse to let the Bible say what it says when they do not like what it says. Men have not liked the idea that Phoebe was a deacon in the early church, and so they made an exception, and just this once made it seem like Paul only considered her a servant. Deacon, of course, does mean servant, and Jesus said that the one who is a servant is the greatest of all. But this single exception in translating all 22 uses of this word by Paul achieved its purpose for centuries. It kept the masses of people, myself included, blind to the fact that Paul considered it legitimate for a woman to be a deacon in the church.
This fact brought to light has revolutionized the thinking of Christians all over the world, and the church is returning to the pattern of the early church by ordaining women deacons. Only those who do not know history view this radical change with alarm. Those who know the history of the church know that every great revival is marked by the increased liberty of women to be a force for God in the world.
Pentecost was the beginning where women as well as men were filled with the Holy Spirit. We have a record of women deacons that goes back to the start of the second century. Pliny wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan about hid dealing with Christians. He wrote, "Upon receiving this account, I judged it more necessary to examine and that by torture to maid-servants who were called ministers." He could not torture them into betraying their Christian friends. They remained faithful unto death.
In that ancient world men could not minister to women. Often a man could not even go and visit a woman. Women had to be appointed as deacons to meet the needs of women in that culture. Christian women in prison could never have any ministry without Christian women appointed to do such service. Both sexes were called deacons until the 2nd century when the word deaconess was developed to distinguish the female deacon.
Phoebe was a deacon in a town about 8 miles from Corinth. She was likely a wealthy widow, and like Lydia was able to travel because of her independence and resources. Such women have been key people in the progress of the church all through history. Even today there are hundreds of millions of dollars given to support Christian ministries by widows 55 and older. Paul gives this dear sister the highest commendation, and he urges them to assist her in any way that she may have need. Paul wanted no restrictions put on this woman. We do not know why she was there, but Paul wanted the Romans to support her in whatever it was.
William Barclay, the great English commentator, wrote, "If we really wish to see Paul's attitude to women in the church it is a passage like this that we should read. Here his appreciation of the work that they were doing in the church shines and glows through his words. The Baptist in England recognized that Paul was open to female deacons. The result was that the first Baptist church on this planet had women deacons, and when the early Baptists spread to Europe and America this practice continued. It died out eventually because of the changing role of the deacon. It use to be the role was ministry to human need. But times change, and deacons became managers of the church instead. This change from ministry to management pushed women out, for they were not needed for management. In modern times the ministry role is being revived, and with it the need for women as deacons.
It is not new, but it is a return to the equal status women had in the early church. Over half of the church is female, and it is only right that they have equal representation in all that concerns them. The spirit of the times, and views of male leadership have made the equality of women in the church a very up and down experience. In the 4th century women's equality in the church was at a peak, and all the leading church father's were in favor of it. John Chrysostom, the Bishop of Constantinople from 397 to 407 A.D., who sermons are still read all over the world today, saw the great value of women in Christian service. He had 46 deaconesses in his church. There were 40 in another church in the city, and 6 in a small church in the suburbs.
His concern was not men's work or women's work, but God's work being done by God's people regardless of sex. The queen of deaconesses was Olympias. She was born in 368 A.D. to a wealthy pagan family. Her parents died early in her life, and she was educated by Christians. At 17 she married, but her husband died after 20 months. She was an 18 year old widow. She refused to marry again, and she devoted her life to being a deaconess. She spent her life using her wealth to minister to the needs of others. We have 17 letters that Chrysostom wrote to her, and from them we learn that she was so generous in giving her money away that he had to caution her to use more wisdom, for she would have to give an account of her charity before God.
Here was a woman who had the freedom to serve Christ as a leader in the church. This freedom spread all over the world but then the role of the deaconess began to decline in the 5th century. Men dominated the church councils, and the men began to take away the power of women. In 593 A.D. at the Synod of Orleans the men abolished the office of deaconess, and they declared it forbidden for any woman to be ordained as a deaconess. Believe it or not, women were forced to go underground and serve Christ in secret without official office. They did so with the help of men in authority who chose to go by the Bible rather than the authority of councils.
The rise of celibacy is what pushed women off the stage, and the church went into what is known as the dark ages. It was dark in part because of the suppression of women. The Reformation brought a restoration of women to service in the church. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers was a key doctrine of the Reformation, and this doctrine leads to the equality of the sexes in Christ. There is no way to escape this basic biblical truth that every child of God is equally able to approach God and serve Him. Luther made it clear that women are just as much a part of the priesthood as men, and that if they have the gift they should preach the Word. Calvin also considered the deaconess as filling, "A most honorable and most holy function in the church."
But keep in mind that by this time there had been centuries of tradition of women not serving, and it was hard to find Protestant women who would break with that tradition. The Anabaptist and Moravians had deaconesses from the start. The Reformation began the vast work of women in hospitals, orphanages, and schools that has touched more lives with the love of Christ than can be calculated. In Germany the deaconess movement developed thousands of women who began the nurses of that day. They saved countless lives by their service in times of plague and war. The deaconess movement of Germany was so successful that calls came from around the world to help get the deaconess movement started in other lands. The movement spread to England and America and influenced many other churches to ordain women deaconesses.
This is not to say that the churches of England and America did not have women in service already. The Puritans of England back in the 1500's were ordaining women deacons. It was just that the movement out of Germany opened up many new doors for women. Sometimes their tasks were very limited. One 60 year old deaconess in the Pilgrim church sat with a rod in her hand to keep children from disturbing the congregation. The German movement put women in leadership positions, however. Florence Nightingale got her training in this German school for deaconesses. The whole world has been changed by the labors of love that came from this movement.
What does history tell us? It says that the church rose and expands its ministry when it uses all of its resources, and does not suppress women. It says that the church withdraws from the world and ceases to develop ministries of compassion when it denies to women the equal right to serve Christ with their gifts. The church is at its best when both sexes can function freely according to their gifts. History also reveals that the Bible is not the problem. The Lord used women freely in his service. Paul rejoices in women laboring side by side with men in the ministry. The priesthood of the believer means that there is neither male nor female in Christ. The problem all through history has been male prejudice. Males have always had the power to give women equally, or to deny it. That is why history is a washboard on this issue. Some men feel comfortable with female equality, and others do not. These male feelings are the reason for the ups and downs of the history of women's equality.
Bishop Lightfoot, one of the most gifted Bible scholars of modern history, wrote about these two verses of Paul-Rom. 16:1 and I Tim. 3:11. He said, "If the testimony borne in these two passages to a ministry of women in Apostolic times had not been thus blotted out of our English Bibles, attention would probably have been directed to the subject at an earlier date, and our English church would not have remained so long maimed of one of her hands."
It is regrettable that men of God have been the cause of the suppression of women, but the good news is that light has broken through, and it is not likely there can ever be a going back into the dark. We are living in a period where the church is letting the body use both hands. It is a time for rejoicing, for every time women are allowed to serve the church, the church marches forward to victory faster than ever. The mission outreach of the church has always been dominated by women. Whoever heard of a men's missionary society? There are tens of thousands of women's missionary societies, and ten of thousands of women missionaries who do everything that men do. They preach the Gospel, and teach the Bible to men, women, and children. They baptize, serve communion, marry and bury, and carry on every function of the church to fulfill the Great Commission of Christ.
Women do not just pray for the missionary task, they do it. They go and do the very thing Jesus commanded, and not one voice of protest is raised, for every body knows Jesus did not say for men to go into all the world to preach, teach, and baptize. He said go ye, and that ye covers all who acknowledge Him as Lord. Paul says amen, and he rejoiced in women of his day who worked side by side with him in carrying out the Lord's command. Thank God for a woman like Phoebe who was so dedicated and so committed to serve Christ that she became the only woman of the Bible called a deacon. Without her and Paul's recognition and honor of her, there may never have been the history of the deaconess, and such a loss would be beyond calculation.
By her faithfulness and service this one godly woman has changed the course of history for the church, and she became by her influence one who touched multiplied millions. We can all be thankful that Paul was thankful to Phoebe, for these kind words to her have in the past, and continue today to lift women to the highest levels of Christian service.