As an undergraduate, I was first exposed to the idea that Paul was a raging misogynist. Feminist writers, mostly on the political and theological left, were happy to denounce a version of Paul that was presented as cold, hard-hearted, harsh, and hateful. Reading our way through such books, it was easy to lose track of the Paul who “wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” (2 Cor. 2:4) Only later in my studies did I discover a more authentic Paul, a lover of souls, who at times grew emotional over the Church, who was often gentle. Only much later did I also discover the Paul who upheld women, learned from them, and gave them real ministry.
If you don’t believe me, ask Phoebe. Phoebe, a woman from the Greek port city of Cenchreae, is perhaps just a flash in the biblical pan for us. She appears in Romans 16:1 and by the end of Romans 16:2 has disappeared into the mists of time. Yet in those two verses, through Paul’s pen, she defines the order of deacons as the Early Church would come to experience it.
Unlike with Junia (Rom. 16:7), there has never been a debate, historical or modern, about Phoebe’s femininity. The debate, instead, has been over her role. Various published bibles present her as a servant of the Church (ESV, NAS) and a deaconess of the Church (RSV) but only in recent years is she presented as what she truly was, a deacon.
Paul’s use of the word here is significant, choosing the masculine noun to describe Phoebe when a feminine version of the word almost certainly existed. Doing so would tip Paul’s cards; he clearly has a specific role in mind that he defines as διάκονος, deacon, not deaconess, and in Paul’s mind, Phoebe is one.
Oddly, the most recent and rather dynamic-equivalent (thought-for-thought as opposed to word-for-word) translations of the Bible are the ones who present Phoebe in this way, as a deacon (NIV, NLT, NRS) of the Church, maintaining both the masculine (or more to the point, gender-irrelevant, since almost every human language resorts to the masculine when the gender is purely grammatical) grammar of her title and its ecclesiastical formality.
Clearly, the ancient world did have a word for female servants and ministers. The word διάκονος certainly had both connotations in the masculine and feminine; it could refer to a trusted household servant, most commonly affiliated with relational service within the household and hospitality. Likewise, the word came to be used for ministers in the pagan temples, including priestesses. Paul seems quite careful to avoid the feminine use because of this latter connotation, particularly in writing to the Ephesians, who lived in the shadow of the feminine cult of Artemis. Nonetheless, Paul could have simply avoided any problematic interpretations by using another Greek word for servants, one he often applied to himself, δοῦλος, or its feminine equivalent δούλη. The lack of the obvious choice here seems to imply that Paul has something more defined in mind here, which even in this early era had emerged into an ecclesiastical role, that of the deacon.
In other words, as Everett Harrison notes, “women were being referred to in a way that suggests they held such an office in the Church.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, v. 10: Romans, p. 161) Specifically, he is referring to Phoebe as a deacon in the ecclesiastical sense of the word.
Later writings of the Church Fathers are consistent with this use. While the Patristic period surely had no lack of a feminine word for the diaconate, diakonissa, it is unclear to the modern reader whether these women were, in fact, ordained deacons or consecrated laywomen. What catches the eye, however, is the continued use across the varied geographic and cultural contexts of the early Church of the word διάκονος, retaining the masculine, for women deacons of this era. These witnesses are found on grave markers of Christian women, and while we can dismiss the ones who bear the title of deaconess as being ambiguous in historical study -as the honorific “deaconess” remains in the Church today- those who continue to bear the title of deacon are a significant witness to the continued presence of women in the ecclesiastical role from the third to the fifth centuries. Based on this evidence, we can echo the claim of Corrado Marucci, that “during the… first millennium, there existed, mostly in the East and more rarely in the West, the female diaconate analogous to the male diaconate” (“The Diaconate of Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2) According to Modern Exegesis” in Women Deacons? Essays with Answers, p. 5).
Perhaps our most solid evidence that women did, in fact, receive the laying on of hands as a sign of true ordination is from Canon 15 of the Council of Chalcedon (451) which requires that “a woman not receive the laying on of hands as a deacon, prior to the age of forty years, and this after rigorous testing” (Διάκονον μὴ χιεροτονεῖσθαι γυναῖκα πρὸ ἐτῶν τεσσαράκοντα καὶ ταύτην μετά ἀκριβοῦς δοκιμασίας; translation mine). This text serves as a gold standard for critical examination. Consider
- the use of the masculine noun obviously referring to female deacons,
- the clear presence of an ordination rite by laying on of hands, and
- the biblical command that the woman be tested (as was required of the men) prior to receiving the rite of ordination.
Here we find the clarity that we have been seeking. The Church was ordaining women to the diaconate, perhaps not universally, but prominently enough that one of the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Church recorded the practice and regulated it.
Paul’s Diaconal Agent
Returning to Romans 16, we find that Phoebe bears more than the title of deacon, but also a role that would become foundational to the early diaconal role; she serves as an agent of the one who sent her. The agent in the ancient world had authority comparable to a power-of-attorney today; he (or in this case, she) was to know the sender well enough to be able to interpret his will and carry it out as if the sender were the one acting in the moment. Jesus, for example, is presented throughout John’s Gospel as the agent of God the Father.
An ancient agent was received with the honor due the sender himself, and Paul leans heavily on this image in Romans 16:2 when he tells the Church to receive Phoebe “in a manner worthy of the saints” and to “help her in whatever she may need from you.” She had a mission, beyond the obvious task of carrying Paul’s longest preserved letter to the church in Rome. Presumably as his messenger, she would read the letter to the Church and knowing the sender’s mind, she would be expected to make comment or clarification as needed. She was to be permitted to carry out this task, though there may have been further aspects to her ministry that were not mentioned in the Epistle.
Were there to remain any doubt about Phoebe’s authority, Paul leaves one more commendation of Phoebe, saying “she has become προστάτις” (Rom. 16:2b) to many, including Paul himself. Here, we find a second word in as many verses with an unsatisfactory translation. The ESV renders it “patron” though that implies to our anglophone minds one who invests money, as does the NIV’s choice of “benefactor.” Other translations (NAS, NET, NLT, RSV) have selected the word “helper” but that also fails to convey the strength of the Greek word, which appears here in its only New Testament occurrence. The French Traduction Œcuménique de la Bible (TOB) is bolder in its choice, “protectrice.”
In classical writing the masculine form of the word meant “one who looks out for the best interests of others, defender, guardian, or benefactor.” In war, this was the person who went ahead of the troops; in prayer, he stood before the gods on behalf of someone else (BDAG, 885). While the masculine word does not appear in the Scriptures, it does occur in the First Epistle of St. Clement (to the Corinthians) as a descriptor for Christ himself, wherein he is called “the high priest and [prostatou] Jesus Christ, through whom, unto Him be glory and majesty, might and honor, both now and forever and ever” (1 Clem. 64).
St. Clement’s description is often translated as “defender” or “guardian” (see 1 Clem. 64 in Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, pp. 40, 84–85). To be frank, there is no excuse for translating the feminine word used to describe Phoebe any differently than we would translate the masculine, as she reflects the diakonia of Christ for his Church.
It appears that Paul does not wish us to underestimate the deacon Phoebe on the basis of her sex. This woman is a deacon, and if both the previous example of the seven men ordained deacons in Acts 6 and the later examples of women deacons described at Chalcedon are any indication, she was a deacon ordained by the laying-on-of-hands and serving in the diaconal role of agent on behalf of her (episcopal) sender.
What does this mean for the modern Church?
The Church today does not approach the diaconate of women as a settled question. In many Christian fellowships, women remain excluded from diaconal leadership, a practice often encouraged by faulty translations of texts like Romans 16:1-2. At the same time, we in the ACNA have attempted to affirm the importance of women’s ministries while remaining of mixed opinions on how far outside the parish nursery and kitchen those ministries should extend. We also have, like the Chalcedonian-era churches, both women deacons and (lay) deaconesses that we, too, are attempting to integrate into one Church tradition.
Additionally, Paul’s commendation of Phoebe as a deacon reminds us, in this modern world, that Paul himself is not to be written off by liberals as a misogynist nor used by conservatives to keep the women in their place. Clearly to Paul, Phoebe’s place included the equivalent of the modern pulpit.
I have twice seen someone walk out of a church when I walked into the pulpit (one bothering to return during the peace to make sure I knew he had walked out because he did not believe women should preach). I once had a formal complaint made about me in my teaching work outside the Church because it became known to a student’s conservative Christian family that I preach in my parish. Almost every woman in ministry has a story like mine.
I was trained in a world in which young women were given a choice between two positions on women in ministry. We could (1) believe that the Holy Spirit was doing “a new thing” and accept, even pursue a church-shaking innovation (by forcing the question of ordaining women) in order to fulfill our ministries, or we could (2) believe that women were somehow ontologically defective, unable to proclaim the gospel as God had called us. We could believe the Bible was a tool of a patriarchy designed to keep women down, or we could believe that our modern notions of a few passages were rightfully designed to bar us from serving our Lord.
I am convinced that there is a better way. Ancient women answered the call of the gospel eagerly, because in it they found the words of life. They answered the call of our Lord to serve, some as deacons, and bring that life to others, because the Church affirmed and equipped them in those ministries. They baptized, catechized, and cared for the people of God, and the early Church knew it could not fully function without them. Why should modern women in this modern Church be any different?