Can Women Lead and Teach in the Church? (Part 7)


Was Phoebe a Deacon? This is the final passage that will be considered in regard to the role of women in leadership and teaching. “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; 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” (Rom. 16:1-2).

Context (Romans 16:1-2)

The context of the passage is in the final chapter of the letter of Romans written by Paul. In his closing remarks, he sends a number of personal greetings, naming people in the church who have laboured with him in the work of the gospel. Phoebe is the first one identified, as a servant of the church at Cenchrea, a seaport seven miles from the city of Corinth used for trading with the East.[1] Scholars suggest that she was most likely entrusted to deliver this letter in person to the Roman church.[2]

Was Phoebe a Deacon? (Romans 16:1-2)

The main discourse surrounding this passage involves the Greek word diákonos, which refers to a minister, servant, courier, or deacon.[3] The question is whether or not Paul was referring to her as a general servant or as having a specific office. Some argue the word used is a broader term that could be applied to any Christian ‘servant’ of Christ. Many scholars affirm that the most likely interpretation is ‘deacon’ for the following three reasons. First, Paul uses the masculine form of diákonos which suggests that he was referring to the office of deacon in this case.[4] Second, when a more generic meaning of this term is intended, it usually reads, “servant of the Lord.”[5] Third, Paul refers to her as ‘diákonos of the church which is at Cenchreae,’ the only place where the term is linked with a congregation, suggesting it is an official office of that particular church.[6]

Some scholars assert that the better interpretation of diákonos is the term ‘minister,’ suggesting the office of deacon was a leadership role which likely included preaching and teaching.[7] However, the preceding discussion has already established that the role of deacon was that which served the church and submitted to the leadership of the overseers. Therefore, Paul’s affirmation of Phoebe as diákonos (deacon) is consistent with his prohibitions on women teaching and exercising authority over men in 1 Timothy 2:11-15. MacArthur notes, “During the first centuries of the church, the role of a woman servant (diákonos) was to care for fellow believers who were sick, for the poor, for strangers passing through, and for the imprisoned. They also were responsible for helping baptize and disciple new women converts and to instruct children and other women.”[8] Phoebe was recognized by Paul as an important servant of the church. While the text does not indicate whether she held an official office, it is quite possible that she was considered a female deacon at that time. The text does not indicate that Phoebe had any role in teaching men or exercising authority over men. Therefore, if she did in fact hold the office of deacon, there are no inconsistencies with the rest of Paul’s teaching on the matter.

Summary (Romans 16:1-2)

In this passage Paul recognizes Phoebe as a valuable servant and helper to the church and to himself. It is likely that she held the office of deacon of the church at Cenchrea. There is no indication in the text that she had any responsibilities of teaching men or exercising authority over men in the church. Therefore, Phoebe holding the office of deacon serves as further confirmation that Paul always intended for the office of deacon to be open to women in 1 Timothy 3:8-13.


In summary, the above discussion has demonstrated the consistent pattern in Scripture of the ontological equality and functional difference of male and female. It was shown that the consequences in Genesis 3:16 introduced a distortion of the roles given at Creation of male headship and female submission. The exegesis of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 concluded that the participation of women to pray and prophecy in corporate worship is valued, as long as it is practiced in a way that demonstrates respect for male headship. This position was rooted both in the doctrines of the Trinity and of Creation. The discussion on 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 demonstrated that women are not to participate in the authoritative interpretation or questioning of prophecy in corporate worship. These guidelines were given both to maintain orderly worship and to uphold the Old Testament Scriptures. In 1 Timothy 2:11-15, Paul clearly states that women are not to teach men, nor exercise authority over men in the church. The main reason given for this are rooted in Creation, the Fall, and the consequences to the woman. Paul invites women to participate in the resisting of their fallen nature by encouraging them to not to act on any desire to rule over men, and to embrace their role to bear and raise children in spite of the hardships they will endure. This sets the context for 1 Timothy 3:1-13, in which Paul outlines the qualifications for overseers and deacons. Since overseers are required to teach men and exercise leadership over men, the office is not available to women. Since the office of deacon does not include these responsibilities, Paul addresses the qualifications of women deacons as well as men, since both genders are permitted to engage in this role. Finally, the exegesis of Romans 16:1-2 portrayed Phoebe as a valuable servant and helper to the church. Since Paul referred to her as diakonos (deacon) of the church at Cenchrea, and since there is no evidence that she taught men or exercised authority over men, it is likely that she held the office of deacon.

     [1]Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Romans~Galatians, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 226.

     [2]John MacArthur, Romans 9-16, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1994) 359.

     [3]The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (1993), s.v. “servant.” Wilder asserts that Phoebe’s primary role in the church was that of a courier or letter-carrier. Terry L. Wilder, “Phoebe, the Letter-Carrier of Romans, and the Impact of Her Role on Biblical Theology,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 56, 1 (2013): 43-51.

     [4]Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 251; Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 787.

     [5]Merkle, 40 Questions About Elders and Deacons, 251.

     [6]“It is very likely that regular offices in local Christian churches were still in the process of being established, as people who regularly ministered in a certain way were gradually recognized officially by the congregation and given a regular title.” Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 914; see also Schreiner, Romans, 787.

     [7]Susan Matthew, Women in the Greetings of Romans 16:1-16: A Study of Mutuality and Women’s Ministry in the Letter to the Romans (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 73-74.

     [8]MacArthur, Romans 9-16, 360.


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