Phoebe from Romans 16:1-2

by Alison Rowan 

“I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea,  that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.“ (HCSB)

The more usual way that I’d casually read it until now, was that she happened to be in the team that had been sent with the letter and that Paul was merely making sure that her own needs were not neglected during her time with them. He was reinforcing the request with reference to how much she deserves it … reaping what she’d sown. But then I noticed he says ‘business’ rather than ‘needs’, though.

If the Roman Christians were being asked to assist her, then is she not the one doing the directing -- as a leader? In fact in the opening quotation, the word translated ‘helper’ by the HCSB committee is prostatis and is more usually rendered as ‘leader’.

Prostatis = Champion, protector, leader or presider (Strong)

 

Justin Martyr used the term to indicate the person presiding at Communion.  The verbal equivalent occurs at Rom 12:8; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 3:4-5, 12; 5:17; Titus 3:8, 14, in all of which describes the action of governing.

 Rom 16:2 reads:

“…she has been a leader [or champion or defender](prostatis) of many and of myself (Paul) as well.”

 

Some scholars have suggested that the last phrase of Rom 16:2 should be translated ‘She has been ordained, even by me, as an officer over many.’

 

From classical Greek writings on through patristic writings it is used in its masculine form as chief, the leader of a party, one who stands before and protects, champion, defender, ruler, leader, supporter...Thayers Greek Lexicon gives the primary meaning for this word in this context as ‘a woman set over others.’

Additional to the resistance to women in leadership, there has been resistance even to the idea of female deacons, through the grammatically unjustified KJV translation of gunaikas in 1 Tim 3:11 as ‘their wives’, while there is neither an article nor the word for ‘their’ being present in the Greek. In 1611, King James of England appointed a committee of scholars to translate the Bible. (It was not strictly a translation, but a rephrasing of the English Bishop’s Bible.) Anglican priests on the committee, in order to prevent women from serving as deacons, translated gunaikas, women in verse 11 as ‘their wives’.

The reasoning for this was entirely political. English society at that time gave no rights to “common” women, whatsoever, despite the glorious reign of Elizabeth I. Since the Mediaeval feudal system had been replaced, the equally divided and largely patriarchal class system, still kept people firmly “in their place.” The brief given to the translators was to emphasise a biblical endorsement justifying the hierarchy of the rich and powerful Bishops in the Church of England over the masses and the King’s primacy over all as it's Head. So, although Scripture recognized women should be deacons, the 1611 Anglican priests dared not. According to their “Translation Notes” opened in 1961 after being under Royal Seal for 350 years, one priest justifies this intentional alteration of Scripture, writing: “If we let the women be deacons, next they will want to be priests.”

In the layout of 1 Tim 3:8-13, It is logical that the suitability of male deacons are described with qualifying virtues, then the desirable virtues of female deacons are also described. Then, covering both deacons and deaconesses, the universal convention is applied that is understood for monogamous and faithful marriage for whichever sex the candidate is IF they are married. Thankfully many of the more recent translations also agree that ‘women’ is the more appropriate translation: NIV, ASV, NAS, Duoay-Rheims, Darby, ERV and Youngs. Webster’s even renders it as deaconesses.

It is significant, I feel , that Phoebe has first mention and such resounding affirmation from Paul, as if it were a personal reference to endorse her authority to do a particular task. It is clear that she had been sent as a delegate in his Apostolic team to the Roman Christians and I feel that she, like Philip and Stephen, had become as one of “those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim 3:13) So, having proved her reliability as a deacon in Cenchrea, is this not Paul now entrusting and authorising her with responsibility as an apostolic delegate to accomplish certain directives of his?

Some believe she may have been the carrier of the letter, which in itself is quite a responsibility. However, it may have been more than that since Paul is authorising her to do a job with which she will require their assistance or co-operation. Perhaps it was collection of alms for other churches under persecution, since he makes mention in 15:25-7,31 of this purpose in him going to Jerusalem? He was also hoping to return to them immediately afterward. Perhaps it was the implementation of some of Paul’s recommendations? We can never know for sure, but it was important enough for Paul to write to the Roman Christians to ensure there was no resistance or reluctance to implementing her wishes.

The verb connected to prostatis is proistemi = to stand before, to lead, to attend to. It is also interesting to note in Rom 12:4-8 that Paul describes the ministries to which the Head of the Body calls the members and gives them the grace (anointed enablement) to perform. The sole qualifications are that the minister be a member of the Body and has received grace to do it, regardless of gender. Rom 12:8 speaks of ”the one who leads (ho proistamenos) to do it with diligence or zeal”.  By God’s permission through Paul, Phoebe is allowed to be ‘one who leads’.

Paul commends how well Phoebe had led many others and himself, too, in Rom 16:2.

So, here is yet more evidence that the traditional, patriarchal interpretation of 1Tim 2:12 has been wrongly deduced from the mistranslation of authentein, which in the vast majority of uses in secular writings of that time, meant to instigate violence against another. In a very few instances (4%), its meaning leant towards being abusively domineering. There has also been the unjustified assumption that the ban on teaching, was on the Word of God, whereas in the proper context of the whole letter (Timothy’s brief in 1:3 was to eradicate unsound doctrine) and the presence of the Temple to Artemis in the City, would it not be more appropriately be a ban on the matriarchal teachings of the cult? After all, these same women in Ephesus are included in the presence of men in the exhortation to “Be filled with the spirit, speaking among yourselves: in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs… giving thanks(Eph 5:19) This ‘speaking among yourselves’ is defined in the parallel passage, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom: in psalms hymns and spiritual songs … giving thanks” (Col 3:16).

Paul is always consistent, when correctly understood and translated. Perhaps, more recent translators should have respected the 19th Century scholarship expressed in Young’s Literal Translation?

“And I commend you to Phebe our sister — being a ministrant of the assembly that [is] in Cenchrea — that ye may receive her in the Lord, as doth become saints, and may assist her in whatever matter she may have need of you — for she also became a leader of many, and of myself.”

It is clear that Paul endorses women’s authorisation to teach the Word of God to all, and to lead all, including men. In fact, I have tentatively found references to sixteen NT Instances where women teach and lead men. The existence of only one reference should surely be enough to call into question the Complementarian interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12, but cherished beliefs die hard, unfortunately. Nevertheless, is there not every Biblical reason for women, in order to fulfill any calling and anointing that God has placed on their life, to also be recognised as having oversight by their watchful and helpful caring within the assembly of saints?