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Studies on the Women of the Bible
by Davis W. Huckabee
"I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also," (Rom. 16:1-2).
Phebe is thought to have been the one that conveyed the apostle's letter to the Roman believers, as is seen by the subscription at the end of this Book. This is not an inspired subscription but was an early tradition of how the epistle was conveyed. "This was not added by the apostle Paul, nor by Tertius his amanuensis, but by a later and unknown hand. Yet there is nothing in the Epistle itself, nor in any ancient or modern writer, that may induce us to question the verity thereof."—Matthew Poole, Commentary On the Holy Bible, Vol. III, p. 538. Since there was nothing in the First Century to compare with our modern postal system, apostolic writings were often conveyed from the writer to the addressees by some traveling saint that was going to that place.
Nothing is said in Scripture of when and where Phebe was converted, but her home church at Cenchrea was very near to Corinth where Paul spent some time in preaching the Gospel, (Acts 18:1-11), and it is possible that she was converted during this time. Yea, he was briefly at Cenchrea as he prepared to sail into Syria, (Acts 18:18), however it is likely that the Cenchrean church had been established before this during Paul's eighteen month and more ministry at Corinth. Paul begins with a commendation of this sister in which he gives her official standing in the Cenchrean church, then, speaks of her great helpfulness to him and to others. "Succorer" appears only here in the Greek New Testament, but it was a word of recognized meaning among people of that day. Scholars have variously rendered it by "patroness," "protector," "benefactor," etc. She was evidently a woman of considerable means, and used her possessions for others' welfare as the Lord gave her opportunity.
PROSTATIS (prostatis), a feminine form of prostates, denotes a protectress, patroness; it is used metaphorically of Phoebe in Romans 16:2. It is a word of dignity, evidently chosen instead of others which might have been used (see, e. g., under HELPER), and indicates the high esteem with which she was regarded, as one who had been a protectress of many. Prostates was the title of a citizen in Athens, who had the responsibility of seeing to the welfare of resident aliens who were without civic rights. Among the Jews it signified a wealthy patron of the community.—W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. IV, pp. 88-89.
We have already in this series of studies noted the reference to women of means ministering to Jesus and His disciples, (Luke 8:2-3). The Greek here is the verb form of the noun rendered "deacon" or "minister," and it relates to ministering in material things, as Onesiphorus is said to have done to Paul at Ephesus, (2 Tim. 1:18). There are two forms of "deaconing," one in spiritual matters, for this term is sometimes used of Gospel ministers, and this is restricted to males alone. The other is used of ministering in material matters, as one ministers to the physical needs of the saints, and this is something that anyone, male of female, may and should so.
The literal rendering of what is designated Phebe's official standing in the Cenchrean Church throws some ignorant Baptists almost into hysterics, for she was a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea. The women that ministered to Jesus and His disciples in Luke 8:2-3 were deaconesses, for their work was defined by the verb form of the noun rendered "deacon." If a person "deaks" then he or she is thereby a deacon regardless of the gender of the person, and regardless of the blind prejudice of onlookers. Until the last two hundred years or less, most sound churches had deaconesses, as history bears abundant witness. Only since the office of the deaconate has been corrupted from being a simple office of service into an official board with authority over church and pastor has the view of deaconesses changed. The following is much to the point.
The etymology of diakonon we have had repeatedly. The only question here is whether it is used in a general sense or in a technical sense as in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13. In favor of the technical sense of "deacon" or "deaconess" is the addition of "tes eldclesias (of the church). In some sense Phoebe was a servant or minister of the church in Cenchrea. Besides, right in the midst of the discussion in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 Paul has a discussion of gunaikas (v. 11) either as women as deaconesses or as the wives of deacons (less likely though a possibility). The Apostolic Constitutions has numerous allusions to deaconesses. The strict separation of the sexes made something like deaconesses necessary for baptism, visiting the women, etc. Cenchrea, as the eastern port of Corinth, called for much service of this kind. Whether the deaconesses were a separate organization on a par with the deacons we do not know nor whether they were the widows alluded to in 1 Timothy 5:9ff.—A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. IV, p. 425.
We could multiply the references to there being women deacons throughout the last almost 2000 years, and we have done so. The reader is referred to the author's two volume set on Studies On Church Truth, Volume I, beginning with page 164 where this matter is proven beyond any reasonable doubt by quotations from spiritual and secular sources. In regard to the latter, Pliny, the Roman Governor of Bithynia wrote to the Emperor Trajan in A. D. 110 and spoke of the Christian churches having deaconesses or ministers in them. This is very close to apostolic times, and was the testimony of one that had no axe to grind either way. He spoke as an impartial historian. The following was written by one that had made a study of churches immediately after the age of the apostles had closed.
Thus Lightfoot, Ulhorn, and others take gunaikas (1 Tim. 4:11), translated "wives" in our version, as meaning deaconesses; and for this interpretation the following reasons are adduced. (a) The term he gune is employed in the early literature with this sense. See Apostolical Constitutions, iii, 19. (b) hosautos, according to the plan of the sentence, introduces a new category of Church officials. Cf. v. 8. (c) At verse 12 diakonos is repeated, for which there was no need if verse 11 was still speaking of them. (d) The family relations of the deacons are first spoken of at verse 12. (e) The wives of bishops are not mentioned; why, then, the wives of deacons? (f) There is no word answering to "their" in the original. If the wives of the deacons are meant, auton would certainly be found, so as to render the designation intelligible. (g) If deacons' wives are intended, it is curious that domestic counsels should be given to the husbands and omitted in the case of the wives.—James Heron, The Church of the Sub-Apostolic Age, p. 296.
We would not be misunderstood in this matter. We have no use for any woman that is so egotistical as to want to lord it over men—to exercise authority over men which is forbidden to them by Scripture. But the exercise of any authority is totally irrelevant to this matter, for the office of the deacon was never anything but an office of service with no authority attaching to it whatsoever. See its original institution in Acts 6:1ff. The office of deacon was instituted to have people set apart to serve in matters that would otherwise distract preachers from their work of prayer and preaching. It was an office of service under the authority of the preachers, who were to appoint the deacons to the work needing to be done. How then could it be wrong for a woman to serve God in some physical or material capacity as godly women have always done? And if they "minister" to other saints in material things then they are deacons in the biblical sense of the word and no one should be ashamed to refer to them as such.
All that is said here of Phebe indicates that she was a woman of considerable means and constantly used her possessions for the benefit of the saints. Paul declares that she was worthy of any help that the Roman saints could lend her while she was among them for she had herself been a great help to Paul and to others. As Scripture so often indicates, there is a consequence both to good deeds as well as to evil deeds. It is declared in Matthew 7:12 that the Lord's people have a responsibility to do unto others as they would desire to have done to themselves. Phebe had done much good to the saints, and now it was but just that others should help her as she had need.
What her business was at Rome is not known; whether it was only to visit the saints; or whether it was to have a cause tried in any court of judicature there; or whether she came upon worldly business, as Lydia of Thyatira was at Philippi, to sell her purple, when the Apostle Paul was there, it matters not. Whatever assistance they could give her, either by directing her where the saints lived; or by giving her proper counsel and advice; or by helping her forward in her worldly affairs; or whatever she was concerned in, this is desired.—John Gill, Commentary On The Bible, Vol. VI, p. 141.
Many churches have Phebe type women in their membership and these are always a great blessing as they selflessly use their possessions for the good of others and for the benefit of the church to which they belong. God bless all such women as well as the men of this character as well.
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