Sister, servant and leader: Who was Phoebe in the Bible?

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With only 50 odd words – or two verses – dedicated to her in the Bible, you could easily miss Phoebe in your reading of Romans. But that would be a shame.

Although few words are given, the ones chosen reveal a woman of faith who served her church both spiritually and financially.

Romans 16:1-2 says: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me."

In this short passage, Paul refers to her both as a deacon and as a patron of many – including himself. She is the only woman in the Bible to be described as being both of these things.

Paul is writing to the Romans about her because he has sent her with the letter he has written. He trusted her with his message, and wanted her to be well received when she got to Rome.

Whether Phoebe actually had the role of "deacon" has been highly debated – as you might imagine – as it would set a precedent for women in leadership that many wings of the church would dispute.

The Greek term used here is "diakonos". What is confusing is that the word itself can be translated two ways: either as a Christian designated to serve with the overseers of the church, or more generally to a servant. One holds a spiritual authority, one doesn't. Interestingly, whenever this word is referring to a man in Paul's writing, it has unequivocally been translated as "minister".

Three things we can learn from Phoebe:

1. Paul valued women

It is most likely Paul entrusted Phoebe – maybe with others – to travel to Rome and deliver his letter to the church there. This implies that he trusted and valued her, both in character and in strength. He recommends her to the Roman church, in the same way that he did Tychicus (Colossians 4:7-9) and Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-30). She was seen as powerful and strong, carrying authority as a trusted messenger.

2. God uses women as leaders

Whether or not Phoebe held the office of deacon, it is clear that God was using her to spread the good news. Whether she was a minister or a servant she was evidently serving the church.

She was undeniably a patron to many, showing a Godly character of generosity and that she would have had some money behind her. It's unlikely she was married as her husband isn't mentioned, which would have been convention, so she probably made the money herself.

There have always been female leaders in God's kingdom – look at Deborah, Miriam and Lydia – and Phoebe was one of them.

3. God puts his followers in family

Paul refers to Phoebe as "our sister". We are so familiar with this terminology, that it is easy to miss the significance. She was his sister-in-Christ and therefore a member of both his and the Romans' spiritual family. As we follow Jesus, we are invited into family with other believers. This family is one of hospitality and generosity, as shown by Paul's command to the Romans to welcome Phoebe "in the Lord in a way worthy of his people". Although they are yet to meet, the Roman Christians are to welcome Phoebe as a sister, for they are part of the same family.

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