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Phoebe: The Ministry of Women in the Early Church

The Lord’s Day
June 30, 2002

Romans 16:1-2
Phoebe: The Ministry of Women in the Early Church

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

Amen. Please open your Bibles to Romans chapter 16. Romans 16 is
a chapter filled with greetings and personal commendation, and you might be
tempted to think that it is somewhat extraneous in terms of giving you any
profitable direction for day-to-day Christian life; and if you think that,
you’re wrong because there is much to learn not only from the commendation that
we are going to study today but the greetings and the words of appreciation and
expressions of gratitude which this chapter is filled with. In fact, in the
passage we study today, you are going to find that there is implicit guidance on
a very vital subject for our own times in fact several vital subjects for our
day-to-day living as Christians.

Today we are looking at a passage in which Paul commends Phoebe, servant of
the church in Cenchrea, the seaport of Corinth. He commends her to the Roman
church. We’ll see why in just a few moments, but it is a passage that has
occasioned much speculation. You see, the word servant that is used for
Phoebe in verse one of Romans chapter 16, in some places is translated
in the New Testament. In other places it is translated deacon
in the New Testament, and those who believe in women holding office in the
church often appeal to Romans 16:1 as an example of the practice of the early
church in regard to women being involved in the eldership or the deaconate.

And so, this subject is extremely important for us as we begin a season of
officer election; because as your eyes, as a congregation, fall down onto the
sheet that has the list of nominees from the Session for the office of elder and
deacon, you will notice it is a sheet of men. Now, are we doing that simply
because of tradition, or because of chauvinism, or because we think it’s what
the Bible says and we have the opportunity in God’s providence to study the
clear teaching of Scripture on this matter today.

I also want to say that as we approach this subject, we should pause and
recognize that there are wonderful people whom we know and love with whom we
disagree on this matter. We do so in a spirit of charity and humility, but we
also do so with resolution because the word of God is clear. And more than
anything else, we long to be faithful to the word of God. That’s really the
issue, isn’t it–fidelity to the word of God.

You know, many people would say, “Why even talk about this issue? It’s just
not important; it’s not important to the gospel.” Well, let me ask you a
question. Is fidelity to the word of God important to the gospel? Yes it is. Is
fidelity to the word of God where the culture is pressing against us, important?
Yes, it is extremely important. And so, the real issue here is the authority of

So let’s hear God’s word in Romans 16, verses one and two

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at

that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you
help her

in whatever matter she may have need of you; for she herself has also been a
helper of many,

and of myself as well.” Amen.

And thus ends the reading of God’s holy and inerrant word; may He write its
truth upon our hearts. May we pray.

Lord, we bow before You to learn from Your word. We pray
that You would teach us that every part of Your word is inspired and is
profitable for reproof and correction for instruction and training in
righteousness. We ask that by Your Spirit, You would open our eyes to behold
wonderful truth from Your word, and that by Your same Spirit You would apply
that truth to our hearts in such a way that we would acknowledge its authority
and live in its light. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let me begin with three affirmations as we tackle the subject of women in
ministry in the early church. This commendation of Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2
invites us to pause and reflect on the total ministry of women in the early
church, as well as to learn specific applications from Paul’s words about
Phoebe. But let’s begin this study with three affirmations, and here is the
first one. From the Bible’s perspective, there is no question that women are to
be involved in the ministry of the church. The only question is: how? From the
Bible’s perspective, there is no question that women are to be involved in the
ministry of the church. The question is: how? Second affirmation. We are going
to believe and do what the Bible says on this matter even if it is uncomfortable
and is politically incorrect. Third affirmation. There is no way I can answer
all of your questions on this subject in one sermon. So let’s begin with those
three affirmations, and then let me reduce those three affirmations to two
propositions that will help clarify our thought as we look at this passage and
others today.

Here’s the first proposition for clarity’s sake: 1. Women have a major
ministry role to play in the church, and 2, the New Testament restricts church
office to mature, qualified, gifted, male members. I’m going to seek to
demonstrate those propositions today from the Bible itself, but let’s begin by
attending to Romans 16:1-2 and learn what Paul teaches us there.

I. Paul’s words of recommendation regarding Phoebe
totally dispel the myth of “Paul the misogynist.”
First, I want you to see his
commendation of Phoebe to the Roman church and then in verse two, I want you to
see what he asks the Roman church to do for Phoebe. In verse one Paul says, “I
commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at
Cenchrea.” As we have already said, Cenchrea is a seaport town of Corinth and
she is a person of some significance in the ministry of that congregation, and
the apostle is commending her to the church in Rome. Now you need to ask,
“What’s going on? Why is Paul commending this person to the church in Rome?” The
background of verse one is the fact that in the Mediterranean world, as you
traveled from place to place, and especially when you were sent on an errand of
some importance, you often brought with you a letter of commendation from the
people who were sending you. And that letter was addressed to the people to whom
you were sent, because the people to whom you were sent didn’t know what you
looked like, and they didn’t know who you were, and they didn’t know why you had
been sent, and they didn’t know what your credentials were. And so letters of
commendation were sent in order to attest to the standing and to the legitimacy
of people who were doing significant errands. And so Paul is giving a
commendation to Phoebe because she is doing something very important. We’re
going to see what it was that she was doing in just a few moments, but this is
the background of this commendation.

By reading between the lines, we can learn three or four things about Phoebe.
First of all, it is very probable that Phoebe is the one who is carrying this
letter–this letter from Paul to the Romans to the Romans. Now, how do we know
that? We know because of Romans 16:1. Why else would Paul have commended her to
the church at Rome unless she was on an errand of great significance for Paul to
the Roman church? The very fact that he is commending her suggests that she is
on a very important errand. Otherwise the commendation seems unnecessary.

Secondly, it is very probable that Phoebe was a Gentile woman–maybe even a
freed servant. Why? Because Phoebe’s name derives from pagan Greco-Roman
mythology. It was common for masters to name their servant this name in Phoebe’s
time, and it is unlikely that a Jewish family would have named their daughter
after a Greco-Roman mythological figure because of fidelity to the one true God;
and so, it is very likely that Phoebe was a Gentile Christian. She had been
converted into the church there in Cenchrea through the ministry of the word and
came from a Gentile background.

Thirdly, it is also very likely that she was a very wealthy businesswoman not
unlike Lydia in Acts 16. Why do I say that? Well, because she’s on a visit to
Rome and Paul doesn’t tell us who those are who are with her. If she had been
accompanied by a number of other members in the church, surely Paul at this time
would have said, “Receive not only Phoebe but receive these other members of the
church who are with her.” This apparently indicates that Phoebe was doing well
enough in business to have her own servants going along with her to Rome and
those servants did not need to be introduced to the church in Rome. So she is
apparently on a business trip to Rome with her own retinue. And on this occasion
she brings the letter of Paul to the Romans.

And fourthly, we find out in verse two that she was the patroness, or helper,
of the Cenchrean church. Paul says, if you’ll look at verse two, that she has
been a “helper of many.” Now that word helper literally means patron.
It indicates that she had means at her disposal and she used those means for the
edification of the local church. She was a patroness supporting the local
church. Paul goes on to say that she even supported his ministry. And so, not
unlike the women who followed Jesus with the disciples, who gave of their own
means as a stewardship to support Jesus’ ministry, apparently Phoebe did this in
the church in Cenchrea and in Corinth.

Now Phoebe is called a servant here, and the term servant is literally
diakanos. Deacon
she is called. And so we ask ourselves,
what does this mean? Does it mean minister or does it mean the
person holding the office of deacon? We are going to answer that question in
just a moment, but let me say that it is very clear, no matter how you translate
in verses one and two, that she is identified as a particularly valuable and
outstanding member of the Corinthian, or Cenchrean church. Paul has a high
esteem for Phoebe and he gives her this title, servant of the church, and
that title is the standard title and role for every Christian in the New
Testament. Jesus is called servant, his apostles are called servants, elders are
called servants, deacons are called servants, and congregation members are
called servants in the Christian church because our whole business in the
Christian church is mutual edification and that means denying ourselves and
ministering to one another with preference over ourselves. And so the title for
every Christian is servant in the New Testament.

Now, let me just pause here, and say by way of application, that Paul’s
commendation of Phoebe in verse one is an example to us; it shows the importance
of people to the Apostle Paul, and it commends to us the same attitude that Paul
had–this duty of showing appreciation and gratitude for the people of God. Isn’t
it encouraging to see the pre-eminent theologian of the New Testament (apart
from our Savior), the Apostle Paul, taking up an entire chapter of his
theological masterpiece, the Book of Romans, to thank people. So often in our
day we hear people pit theology over against people. Have you ever heard someone
say something like this: People are more important than theology. Or something
like this: People are more important than truth. Or: we should be more concerned
about people than we are about theology. Well, as far as the Apostle Paul was
concerned, that was a false contradiction because people and truth were both
important to the Apostle Paul. In fact, as far as Paul was concerned, truth was
for people, it was good for them; it made their lives better and his
concern for truth was not one that he held at the expense of his concern for
people. And so at the end of his book, before he closes, he refuses to close
until he has thanked and appreciated and commended and expressed gratitude for a
whole host of people.

And that attitude, my friends, ought to be our attitude towards one another.
When was the last time when you encouraged one another and thanked and expressed
appreciation for one another for spiritual edification? Many of you will do that
for your ministers. You will write to us and you will say, “Thank you for your
spiritual edification.” When’s the last time you encouraged your brothers and
sisters that way? When’s the last time you wrote a note–”Thank you for being
faithful and trusting in God through the trial that you are going through
because it’s a witness to me and I appreciate you, sister.” When’s the last time
you sat down and said, “Thank you for teaching me the Word of God in that small
group. It ministers to my soul. Thank you for serving faithfully as an elder of
this congregation. Thank you for serving in the ministry of diaconal work
through the women in the church.” When is the last time that you expressed that
kind of appreciation for ministry to one another? We ought to be doing that and
edifying one another and appreciating one another in the church that way. Paul’s
example shows us this in this passage.

That’s the first thing I want you to see– Paul’s commendation of Phoebe. By
the way, doesn’t that totally dispel the myth of Paul the woman hater, Paul the
misogynist, Paul the man who just can’t stand women? Here he is commending this
godly woman, Phoebe, to the church and you know what? It’s not going to be the
last time he commends a woman in this chapter. In fact, this is not going to be
the only place in the New Testament in which Paul expresses his profound
appreciation for the ministry of women in the life of local congregations.
Doesn’t this show that Paul is a person fully capable of fully appreciating the
ministry of women in the church? This chapter not only teaches the grace of
Christian courtesy and the grace of caring, but it shows us something of the
heart of Paul in his appreciation of the important role of women in the local

II. Paul clearly acknowledges the substantive help that
Phoebe has provided to the Church and to himself.
Secondly, I’d like you to see in verse
two Paul enjoins the Roman church here to show hospitality and to give help to
Phoebe. He clearly acknowledges the substantive help that Phoebe has given the
church back in the seaport of Corinth, and now he asks Rome to give her
substantive help. If you look at verse two, Paul calls on the Roman Christians
to do two things: to receive Phoebe and to help her. What does that mean? When
he calls on the Romans Christians to receive her, he is asking them to show
hospitality to her. He tells them that they are to do this Christianly and he
uses two phrases to emphasize this: Receive her.
How? In the Lord and in a manner worthy of the saints. So in two
phrases, he presses home the fact that he wants them to treat her with special
Christian hospitality. Not just southern hospitality but Christian hospitality.
Hospitality that is born out of the fact that we are united to Christ and that
all who are united to Christ are united to one another. So he wants them to show
her Christian hospitality.

Secondly, he asks them to help her. When he says that he means for them to
give tangible aid and assistance to her. Again he presses this home with two
arguments. Not only, as he said in verse one, that she’s been a faithful servant
in the church at Cenchrea, but he goes on to say that she has been its patroness
and helper and that she has even been his patroness and helper and that for
these reasons he calls on them to give her help. As she has helped the church;
he wants the church to help her. And again, there can be no doubt as to Paul’s
evaluation of the importance of godly feminine contribution to the ministry of
the early church. His appreciation is emphatic here and frankly, it is
ubiquitous not only in the rest of this chapter but in his other books, he
speaks to this appreciation.

Furthermore, in verse two, we see this emphasis on hospitality. Paul is very
concerned that the Christian church shows radical Christian hospitality. That
emphasis was a mark of the early Christian churches and it needs to be a mark of
our churches as well–not simply a cultural manifestation, but something which is
deliberately derived from and driven by the gospel and our grasp of the gospel.
So we see here Paul commending Phoebe.

But what role does she play in the church? Is she an elder? Is she a deacon?
Does she have the ministry of the word, or the ministry of the rule, or is she
given the authority for the diaconal care in the church? What is it? Well, Paul
clearly answers that question for us in three other places in the New Testament.
Let’s turn there. First, turn to 1 Timothy 2:11-15, where we read: “A woman must
quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness, but I do not allow a
woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet for it was
Adam who was first created and then Eve, and it was not Adam who was deceived;
but the woman being deceived fell into transgression. But women will be
preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and
sanctity with self restraint.”

Now it’s hard to imagine four verses that would evoke a more visceral and
adverse response from our generation than those. Paul’s words are uncomfortable
to read even in our day and age in the context of the Christian Church. But Paul
is making two things crystal clear here. First, he’s making it clear that women
are to be the receivers of instruction in the public assembly or the church; and
secondly, he is emphasizing that women are not to teach or exercise authority
over men in the public assembly of the church. You see this in verses 11 and 12.
Paul makes it clear that the headship of men and the authority of the elders are
never to be challenged by the women of the congregation in the public assembly.
Instead, they are to receive the teaching of the elders of the church rather
than give it. And that’s made clear by verses 12-15 where Paul again emphasizes
that women are not to teach men in the public assembly or to hold authority over
men in the church. So Paul is explicitly restricting the teaching and ruling
ministry of the church to qualified and called men.

And notice that this is a functional restriction, not just an official or
title restriction. He doesn’t say that it’s ‘ok’ for men to hold the titles but
women can do the work. He says “No, the work is to be the work of the elders of
the men in the church,” and he gives his rationale in verses 13-15. In those
three little verses he makes it clear, first of all, that Adam’s priority in
creation has an impact on male headship in the church. In other words, he’s
saying that there is a significance in the fact that Adam was created first.
Secondly, he speaks of the deception of woman in the fall as one of the reasons
why men are to lead in the church. This does not mean that Paul believes that
women are more gullible than men; it means that in the role reversal that
occurred in the fall, we see the effects of that role reversal. When Eve was
tempted by Satan she was the one who carried on the conversation. Where was
Adam? He was right there. She doesn’t have to go looking for him. She turns and
gives him the forbidden fruit. Where was Adam? Why wasn’t he speaking up? The
roles were reversed and the apostle says that’s what happens when we fail to
keep the creational roles in the life of the local congregation.

III. Paul consistently teaches that the ministry of the
word and rule in the church is to be exercised only by qualified male leadership.
Verse 15 is notoriously difficult; I won’t
give you the four major interpretations of it, but I will say this. Whatever the
difficulties of understanding its specifics, the general point is well
understood–Paul believes that the role relationship of godly, gifted qualified
male leadership in the church is for the well being of women.

Now Paul establishes here that there are to be role distinctions in the
ministry of the church. Yes, women are going to be involved in the activity and
ministry in the church, but there are going to be role distinctions in regard to
the offices of teaching and ruling and preaching in the church.

Those who argue against the interpretation that I’ve just given you basically
say one of three things. There are only three arguments that are brought against
this. Anybody you read that doesn’t agree with that interpretation will say one
of three things. They will either say, “Well, Paul doesn’t mean what he seems to
be saying here. He’s really writing to a specific circumstance and this is not a
general rule for all the churches.” Let me invite you to look down to chapter 3,
verse 16, and look at what Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:15. He says in verse 14 to
Timothy: “I am writing these things to you hoping to come to you before long,
but in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct
himself in the household of God which is the church of the living God; the
pillar and support of the truth.” In other words, Paul says to Timothy, I’m
writing these things to you about the order of the church not because this is
some particular urgent exceptional situation, but because this is the way it is
supposed to be in the church. I’m writing this to you because this is the way
it’s supposed to be everywhere in the church of God.

Secondly, people will say, “Well, Paul contradicts himself. In Galatians 3,
he says ‘that there is neither male nor female,’ and then in 1 Timothy 2, and 1
Corinthians 14, he makes role distinctions between men and women in the church
and in the home, and that’s just a contradiction. And we choose to agree with
Paul in Galatians 3 and you are just following him in 1 Timothy and in 1
Corinthians 14. Well the first thing I would say to that is that if you look at
those passages, they are not contradicting one another. They are perfectly
harmonious in the way they go together. Secondly, the very idea that the
inspired Apostle Paul can contradict himself opens up a whole host of problems.
We can go out and find out all sorts of seeming contradictions and pick one side
of the contradiction as opposed to another to believe ourselves. If we believe
in the authority of Scripture, we can’t believe that there are ultimate
contradictions in the Word of God.

Thirdly, some people will just say, “Well, Paul was wrong. Paul was
culturally bound; he couldn’t see beyond his own day and time. He lived in a
chauvinistic era. He was culturally bound. Or he was theologically confused.”
But once again friends, once you do that, what can you not reject in the
Scripture? You could say, “Well, we’ve got to reject what the Scripture says
about male/female relationships in the church because it’s outdated. Well, why
don’t we then say, “We’ve got to realize that in our day and time the idea that
Jesus is the only Savior of the world is just outmoded. There are many roads
that lead up the mountain, and all religions have truth, and all religions can
get you to God and the idea that Jesus is the only way is outmoded. Where could
you stop in the Scriptures? Once you start deciding the one part of the
Scripture is wrong, what about the rest?

And so Paul consistently teaches that the ministry of the word and rule in
the church is to be exercised only by qualified male leadership. Let me ask you
to turn to 1 Corinthians 14, verses 34 and 35, where he reiterates this very
thing. He says the “women are to keep silent in the churches for they are not
permitted to speak but are to subject themselves just as the law also says. If
they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home for it is
improper for a woman to speak in the church.”

Now, first of all, that sounds harsh; secondly, it sounds like a gag order.
But if you look at it in its context, it is crystal clear. If you will allow
your eyes to scan back up from 1 Corinthians 14:34 to the list of things that
Paul says that are done in the church in edification, it’s very clear that this
command ‘not to speak in the church’ directly relates to teaching. So Paul is
not issuing a universal gag order–women can’t speak once they get under the roof
of the church. I don’t even think that he is saying that women can’t ask
questions, period. I suspect he is saying: Don’t use a question to try and teach
the class what you want to teach. Don’t use a question to try and teach the
congregation what you want to teach. He’s saying that he wants women to respect
the order that has been established by God in the church of elders teaching and
preaching in the congregation. Paul’s language in verse 34a and 35b of “keep
silent” and “improper to speak” is not a universal gag order, it’s a restriction
against women engaging in authoritative teaching or didactic speech in the
assembly of the Lord’s people. Women are not to preach or teach. Paul is
reiterating that there is to be a role distinction in the ministry activity of
the Christian church. Yes, women participate in ministry; no, they don’t preach.
Yes, women participate in ministry; no, they don’t rule over the church.

Thirdly, if you turn back with me to 1 Timothy, chapter 3, let’s get to the
sticky question of deacons. Many good evangelicals differ on this issue, but 1
Timothy 3:11 is the verse we need to look at. This is the verse we said we would
come back to when we were studying deacons just a few weeks ago and it reads
like this: “Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips but
temperate, faithful in all things.” Now, what does that mean? Is this passage
talking about women deacons? Is it talking about deaconesses? Is it talking
about female assistants to the deacons? Is it talking about wives of deacons? Is
it talking about wives of elders and deacons?

I would suggest to you that it’s speaking about female assistants to the
deacons and may also include wives of deacons and wives of elders who are
assisting them in their work. It is very clear in chapter 5 that women were
actively involved in the diaconal work of the church, but that they weren’t
called deacons. And the fact that Paul doesn’t call the women deacons in verse
11, speaks volumes. It’s the perfect place for Paul to use the title deacon
for women if he wants to, and he doesn’t.

Furthermore, if you look back at Acts, chapter 6, verses 1-7 when the
deaconate is first established, the apostles explicitly say, “Choose from among
you seven men who are qualified,” he doesn’t use the generic term anthropos;
Luke uses the term andros, the word for men.

And so in this passage it seems that we are speaking in 1 Timothy 3:11 of the
women who assist the deacons in diaconal ministry and Paul is saying that they
must possess godly character. It shows the involvement and qualifications of the
women who are involved in the diaconal care of the church. And that is exactly
what we are trying to do at First Presbyterian Church. The women of the church
are not only actively involved in discipling one another but they are actively
involved in the comprehensive diaconal care of the whole congregation. In fact,
I want to make a challenge. Of the churches that I have seen where women hold
office, I have never seen a congregation where the women are more actively
involved in the ministry of the church than at First Presbyterian Church where
we don’t have women as officers. It’s not a matter of status; it’s a matter of
service. And those who are conserved to serve in the congregation are not so
anxious to grasp for a status, especially when the word of God restricts the
certain activity of roles in the ministry of the church. So fidelity to
Scripture presses us to understand that the offices of the church are for
qualified, gifted male leaders, but that women will be comprehensively involved
in the ministry of the church.

Let’s pray.