“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.” (Romans 16:1–2, ESV)
There has been a longstanding debate among theologians as to the role of women in the church. Some have held to a very strict view that women could do virtually nothing in the church. Others held to a view that women could do everything that men could do in the church. I am not going to solve this debate, except to say that women do and should make a significant contribution to the work of the church.
In Chapter 16 Paul mentions ten women and one of these he specifically commends for being a servant of the church at Cenchreae. This is the only mention of Phoebe in the Scriptures. We do not know specifically what she did in the church except that Paul states she was a servant. The word for servant, diakonos, is the same word translated elsewhere as deacon in the New Testament (Phil 1:1; 1 Tim 3:8-12). From this, some conclude that Phoebe must have been a female deacon or perhaps a deaconess, while others that she was a woman who served the church in another official capacity. It is difficult to make a firm distinction as to what her official capacity was in the church from this passage.
However, we can make some observations regarding Phoebe. First, she was highly commended by Paul. He would not give such a commendation lightly. She must have impressed Paul sufficiently due to her commitment and service to the Lord in the church.
Second, Paul’s words that she was a diakonon “of the church” seems to be an indication that she served in some official capacity. While there is some debate as to whether she served as a deacon or deaconess, there is no doubt that she served in a significant role in the church.
Third, in verse 2, Paul asks the recipients of the letter to “receive her in the Lord.” From this it seems likely that Paul used her to deliver the letter to the church, which would have been a long and difficult journey. Thus, he trusted her resourcefulness, diligence, and perseverance to get the job done.
Last, also from verse 2, we see that she had served as a “patron of many” and of Paul himself. The word “patron,” prostatis, refers to a woman active in helping others, caring for their affairs and aiding with resources. From this she seemed to have a heart for giving and had a ministry of mercy.
From this, we can see that Phoebe demonstrated the exemplary character of a servant of a church. My sense of her is that she was a humble servant, who diligently served in her church and assisted those engaged in the Great Commission work. I don’t think she was worried about titles or position. I believe she sought to glorify God and edify the church. It behooves us all to think in this same way when it comes to serving our local church.