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Deacons in the Ephesian Church, and Phoebe as Patron

Deacons in the Ephesian Church (1 Tim. 3:8–13)

(Other articles in this series are here.)

In one of the later New Testament letters[1] is a passage about diakonoi. Paul wanted these ministers, and also the overseers mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, to be socially respectable and above reproach, so he outlined certain moral qualifications. The word diakonoi in 1 Timothy 3:8ff may refer to official deacons with a recognised position in the church or it may simply refer to ministers who weren’t overseers. Whether the women mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV are female deacons/ ministers or the wives of deacons/ ministers is debated but, considering that up until the fourth century there was no separate word for female diakonoi (see footnote in Part 1), it is likely female ministers are simply called “women” here to distinguish them from the male ministers.

Diakonoi likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them minister (diakoneitōsan). Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let diakonoi be married only once, and let them manage (proistamenoi related to prostatis)  their children and their households well; for those who minister (diakonēsantes) well gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 3:8–13

There are indications in the text that suggest these women were female diakonoi and not the wives of diakonoi. For instance, there is no specific mention of women or wives associated with the episkopoi (bishops or overseers) in 1 Timothy 3:1ff, but there are women or wives mentioned in association with diakonoi. It doesn’t make sense that Paul would regard the moral requirements of the wives of male diakonoi to be worthy of mention, but not the moral requirements of wives of episkopoi.[2] So the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV are most probably diakonoi themselves.

[Note that I’ve added “NIV” to most 1 Timothy 3:11 references because the automatically highlighted scripture references are from the CSB which has “wives” here. By adding “NIV” the CSB’s version of 1 Timothy 3:11 doesn’t show, but the NIV’s version which has “women.”]

Furthermore, if wives of diakonoi were intended, we might expect a definite article or a genitive pronoun in the Greek of 1 Timothy 3:11 which could be translated as “the wives” or “their wives” respectively. However, it is the use of the word “likewise” (hōsautōs) that indicates a distinct but similar group to the diakonoi in verses 8–10 is being addressed in verse 11.[3] “Likewise” (hōsautōs) is found at the beginning of 1 Timothy 3:8 and 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV.

Lesly Massey writes that “likewise” is “customarily used to introduce the second and third entities in a series.” He suggests that the use of hōsautōs in 1 Timothy 3 “seems to place the three groups [episkopoi, diakonoi, female diakonoi] in categories of a similar nature.” That is, the people belonging to these three groups are involved in somewhat similar ministries and require similar qualifications.[4] Taking the word “likewise” into account, we can see that verses 8–10 refer to male deacons/ ministers, verse 11 specifically refers to female deacons/ ministers, and verses 12–13 probably refer to both male and female deacons/ ministers.[5] This slight distinction between the qualifications of male and female deacons/ ministers may indicate that there was already some slight distinction in roles also. In later centuries there would be a clear demarcation between the roles and ordination ceremonies of male and female deacons.

Clement of Alexandria (circa 150–215) believed the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV to be women deacons. He wrote, “We also know the directions ‘about women deacons’ (peri diakonōn gunaikōn) which are given by the noble Paul in his second [sic] letter to Timothy.” Stromata 3.6.53. Clement was referring to 1 Timothy 3:11. Martimort writes that Clement understood Paul was referring to women deacons “from the context of the passage. Many exegetes have interpreted the passage in exactly this same way.”[6]

John Chrysostom (circa 347–407) weighed in on the debate about whether the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV were deacons. In his Homily 11 on 1 Timothy he wrote: “Some have thought that this is said of women generally, but it is not so, for why should [Paul] introduce anything about women to interfere with his subject? He is speaking of those who hold the rank of deaconesses.”[7] In response to 1 Timothy 3:12, including the idiomatic phrase “a one-woman man” which some believe excludes women[8], he added, “This must be understood therefore to [also] relate to deaconesses. For that order is necessary and useful and honourable in the Church . . .”[9] Chrysostom may have had the deaconess Olympias, his close friend and patron, in mind when he wrote this.[10]

Furthermore, in the Apostolic Constitutions, written in around 380, the word diakonoi is used for male deacons but the Greek word gynē is used for a female deacon in the following paragraph.

Let the deacons … minister to the infirm as “workers who are not ashamed.” And let the woman [i.e. female deacon] be diligent in taking care of the women; but both of them [are to be] ready to carry messages, to travel about, to minister, and to serve.
Apostolic Constitutions 3.19.1 (English translation: New Advent; Greek: p. 213, 215 here.)

Even though the word for “woman” is used, the context shows that it refers to female deacons. This document states how essential female deacons were and it mentions that they were ordained (Apostolic Constitutions 3.16.2).

Perhaps one of the female diakonoi in Ephesus cared for widows. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul wrote, “If any ‘woman who is a believer/ faithful woman’ (pistē) has widows, ‘she should provide aid’ (eparkeō) for them and not burden the congregation, so that ‘they can provide aid’ (eparkeō) for the widows who are really in need” (1 Tim. 5:16). These widows may have belonged to an early order of widows.

Phoebe as Patron

The ministry of some deaconesses in the fourth century and the ministry of female diakonoi like Phoebe were somewhat similar in that women who were wealthy acted as benefactors for the church and for individual church members, and they hosted travelling ministers and fellow Christians in their homes. Paul specifically identified Phoebe as a prostatis, a word that can be translated as “patron” or “benefactor,” when he introduced her to the Roman church.[11]

The noun prostatis occurs only once in the New Testament—in Romans 16:2. The masculine form of this word, prostatēs, does not occur at all; however, it is used of Jesus in 1 Clement 36:1 and 61:3 where Michael Holmes has translated it as “benefactor”.[12] Older translators of First Clement have translated prostatēs into English as “champion”, “protector”, and “guardian”.[13] Kevin Giles writes that “In either its masculine or feminine form it means literally ‘one who stands before.’ This meaning is never lost whether it be translated leader, president, protector or patron.”[14] Furthermore, the related verb proistēmi is used in the New Testament in the context of church leadership (Rom. 12:8; 1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 5:17 cf. 1 Tim. 3:4, 12). Paul’s use of this verb may combine the senses of providing for and of leading. (More on this verb here.)

While Phoebe was some kind of leader in the church at Cenchrea, possibly the host who cared for a congregation that met in her home, it is unlikely that she was a leader of Paul. So the translation of prostatis as “patron” or “benefactor,” rather than “leader,” fits with what Paul says in Romans 16:2: that “she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.”

A prostatis (feminine) or prostatēs (masculine) was, without exception, an influential person in Roman society. When translating or commenting on prostatis in Romans 16:2, however, more mundane words such as “helper” have typically been used. James Dunn notes the bias against recognising Phoebe as an influential woman, and states, “The unwillingness of commentators to give prostatis its most natural and obvious sense of patron is most striking.”[15] He adds that, unlike many modern readers, Paul’s original readers “were unlikely to think of Phoebe as other than a figure of significance whose wealth and influence had been put at the disposal of the church at Cenchrea.”[16]

The practice of patronage flourished in the early Roman Empire and was an important and essential part of Roman society.[17] Seneca even described it as “the chief bond of human society” (De Beneficiis 1.4.2).[18] While the practice was informal and voluntary, there were certain social constraints and reciprocal obligations involving the client-patron relationship. These constraints and obligations were an extension of the honour-shame dynamic that pervaded Roman society, and the typical client-patron relationship was one of unequal power. A wealthy man or woman who made a generous donation to his or her city, community, guild, or to an individual, etc, was able to exercise considerable influence and power. Patrons expected loyalty, public support, as well as public praise that reinforced or elevated the patron’s level of honour, while conversely reinforcing the client’s lower level on the all-important and highly competitive “pecking order” of honour-shame.[19]

Not every client-patron relationship, however, was between people of unequal rank and power. Paul was not without honour, yet he publicly acknowledged and praised Phoebe and other ministers, such as Stephanas, for the considerable help they had given to him and to the church (Rom. 16:1–2; 1 Cor. 16:17–18).

Susan Mathew suggests, “Phoebe’s mission in relation to the community at Cenchreae may be the same as that of the house of Stephanas . . .”[20] Stephanas and his household ministered to the church at Corinth, as well as to Paul personally. Similarly, Phoebe and her household may have been a base of ministry in Cenchrea. Paul may have been a guest in the homes of Stephanas and Phoebe and enjoyed their hospitality during his travels in Corinth, but both Stephanas and Phoebe also travelled. We know that Stephanas and two of his colleagues travelled from Corinth to Ephesus to visit Paul and serve him in his mission (1 Cor. 16:17). We saw in Part 3 that many deacons travelled as part of their ministry. Perhaps Stephanas, like Phoebe, was also a diakonos.

In the next instalment, I give a summary of the possible roles of Phoebe as minister or deacon.


[1] The dating and authorship of First Timothy are debated, but it seems certain that First Timothy was written, at the latest, before 120. This is when Polycarp of Smyrna wrote his letter to the Philippians in which he alludes to First and Second Timothy. The Apostolic Fathers, Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd edition), Michael W. Holmes (ed.) (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 273. I do not rule out the likelihood that the apostle Paul is the author of First Timothy.

[2] The list of qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1ff assumes that the episkopoi in Ephesus are male, and married, and have children, and have their own households to manage, but nowhere in the Greek New Testament does it state that the leadership of churches, or the role of overseer, is restricted to men only. More on the role of episkopoi here.

[3] Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Sydney: Collins Dove Publishers, 1989), 53.

[4] Lesly Massey, Women and the New Testament: An Analysis of Scripture in the Light of New Testament Era Culture (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1989), 61.

[5] Many scholars, both ancient and modern, provide similar lists with between three to five reasons for understanding that 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV refers to female deacons. Each reason on its own is not particularly convincing, but the reasons together are compelling.
In 1882, New Testament scholar and Church of England bishop J.B. Lightfoot was decided that 1 Timothy 3:11 NIV refers to women deacons and a female diaconate.

As I read my New Testament, the female diaconate is as definite an institution in the Apostolic Church as the male diaconate. Phoebe; is as much a deacon as Stephen or Philip is a deacon. Yet in the former of the two passages to which I have alluded (1 Tim. 3:11), the deaconesses are transformed into deacons’ wives [in the Authorised (King James) Version] in defiance alike of the natural interpretation of the words and of the suggestions of the context …
Lightfoot, “I. The Diocese” in Primary Charge: Two Addresses Delivered to the Clergy of the Diocese of Durham in December 1882 (London: Macmillan, no date), 33. (Online Source)

[6] Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: An Historical Study (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986) Originally in French: Les Diaconesses: Essai Historique (Rome: C.L.V. Edizioni Liturgiche, 1982), 77.

[7] John Chrysostom, “Homily 11 on First Timothy”, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 13. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[8] The NRSV capture the meaning of the Greek phrase mias gunaikas andra as “married only once” in 1 Timothy 3:2, 12, 5:9, and Titus 1:6. I have more on this idiom, and how the early church understood it, here: https://margmowczko.com/pauls-theology-1-timothy-3-2-priscilla/

[9] Chrysostom, “Homily 11 on First Timothy”.

[10] Olympias (c. 361–408) became a wealthy widow at the age of twenty-five, after only two years of marriage, at which point she devoted her life to the church. She was ordained as a deaconess at the age of thirty. Olympias was a loyal supporter and correspondent of Chrysostom, and many of their letters, written while Chrysostom was in exile, survive. Olympias built hospitals and an orphanage, and she became a deaconess-abbess of a monastery named Olympiades, which housed more than two hundred and fifty deaconesses and virgins.
See Joan Cecelia Campbell, Phoebe: Patron and Emissary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 63, and Jeannine Olsen, Deacons and Deaconesses throughout the Centuries (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 62. (More on Olympias here.)

[11] In the ninth-century uncial manuscripts F and G, the word prostatis (“patron”) is replaced by parastatis, a word that can be translated as “helper” or “assistant.” Parastatis is related to the verb paristēmi which Paul uses when he tells the Romans to assist Phoebe (Rom. 16:2). The overwhelming textual evidence indicates that prostatis (“patron”), not parastatis (“helper”), is the original word Paul used to describe Phoebe.

[12] Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 93 & 129.

[13] For example, Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians”, transl. Charles H. Hoole (1885), Early Christian Writings.
And Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians”, transl. J.B. Lightfoot (no date), Early Christian Writings.

[14] Giles, Patterns of Ministry, 36. The LSJ lexicon gives the following definitions of prostatēs: “one who stands before, front-rank man . . . leader, chief, especially of a democracy . . . generally, ruler . . . chief authors . . . administrator . . . president or presiding officer . . . one who stands before and protects, guardian, champion  . . . patron . . .” Liddell, Scott, and Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition, 1526–27.

[15] James D.G. Dunn, Romans 9–16, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol 38B (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 888.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes,

Although many commentators have understood this title prostatis figuratively, as “helper, support,” it actually denoted a person of prominence in the ancient Greco-Roman world. . . In giving Phoebe this title, Paul acknowledges the public service this prominent woman has given to many Christians at Cenchrea. Prostatis may be related to proistamenos (Rom. 12:8; cf. 1 Thess. 5:12); so Phoebe was perhaps a superior or at least a leader of the Christian community of Cenchrea as some commentators suggest (Kuhl, Leenhardt, Murray, Schulz [who would translate it as “president”]).
Fitzmyer, Romans: A New Translation and Commentary (The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1993), 731. His use of square brackets.

[16] Dunn, Romans 9–16, 889.

[17] “Personal patronage was an essential means of acquiring access to goods, protection, or opportunities for employment and advancement. Not only was it essential—it was expected and publicized!” David deSilva, “Patronage and Reciprocity: The Context of Grace in the New Testament,” Ashland Theological Journal 31 (1999): 32.

[18] Quoted by deSilva in “Patronage and Reciprocity”, 33.

[19] Much of the information in this paragraph has been drawn from Carolyn Osiek, “Diakonos and Prostatis: Women’s Patronage in Early Christianity,” HTS Theological Studies 61 (1 & 2) (2005), 346–370. See also David deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000); and Bruce Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994)

[20] Susan Mathew, Women in the Greetings of Rom 16:1–16: A Study of Mutuality and Women’s Ministry in the Letter to the Romans (Durham University: Durham E-Theses, 2010),  119.

Postscript: June 1, 2024
The Patronage of Marcellus in the Apocryphal Acts of Peter

In the Acts of Peter is a brief account of a man named Marcellus. According to the story, Marcellus was a Roman senator, a Christian, and a generous patron of the poor. The story includes this piece of dialogue.

“Believe us, brother Peter, “they said, “none among men was so wise as this Marcellus. All widows, who hoped in Christ, took their refuge in him; all orphans were fed by him. Will you know more, brother? All the poor called Marcellus their patron; his house was called the house of the pilgrims and poor.”
Acts of Peter 8. (Internet Archive p. 71)

I’ve included this fictional story, which was written in the second half of the second century, because it gives an indication of what some early Christian patrons did: protecting widows, feeding orphans, as well as sheltering Christian travellers and the poor. Moreover, describing someone as a generous supporter of people in need was used by authors of early Christian texts to highlight both a person’s piety and prominence (e.g., Cornelius in Acts 10:1-2, Tabitha in Acts 9:36ff, Phoebe in Rom. 16:1-2).

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This article is adapted from chapter six of a paper submitted on the 6th of November 2014 entitled “The Roles of Diakonoi, Male and Female, in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church (c. 40–120) with Special Reference to Phoebe of Cenchrea.”

The bibliography is here.

Some of the information in this series has been included in my newer essay, “What did Phoebe’s position and ministry as διάκονος of the church at Cenchrea involve?” in Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity: The First Two Centuries, Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy and Esko Ryökäs (eds) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 91–102. (Mohr Siebeck; Google Books)

Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Part 1: Phoebe and the Ministry of Women

Part 2: Ancient Latin texts in which Phoebe is regarded as an official deacon
Part 3: Phoebe’s role in Paul’s mission to Spain
Part 4: Deacons in the Philippian Church and Phoebe
Part 5: Deacons in the Ephesian Church, and Phoebe as Patron
Part 6: Deacons and Women in the Apostolic Fathers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion

Explore more

Olympias of Constantinople: Deaconess and Chrysostom’s Friend
7 Lessons in Ministry from the Ministry of Stephanas
Likewise women … Likewise husbands …
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Believing Wives and Female Coworkers of the Apostles (1 Cor. 9:5)
Diakon– Words in Major Greek Lexicons
Paul’s Qualifications for Church Leaders
The Role of Overseers in First-Century House Churches

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

10 thoughts on “(5) Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. Thanks, Marg, for your comprehensive consideration of Phoebe. Not going to delay you much with this. Was interested indeed to see you including the ideas relating to envoys and representative travels. And, not unnaturally, this made me wonder why you had not, apparently, been taken with my consistent view that Phoebe as diakonos of the community in Cenchreae was in fact being designated as their delegate to the community of Rome (and hence perchance an excellent postie for Paul’s document addressed to the Roman Christians).
    Oh well…
    Your work has been meticulously researched, and every best wish with the submission.

    1. Hi John, I do suggest that Phoebe was a delegate (or emissary) of the church at Cenchrea in Part 3:

      “Another possible scenario is that the church at Cenchrea had agreed to be a sponsor of Paul’s mission to Spain, and had chosen Phoebe to be their emissary in Rome, to act on their behalf, and to see Paul’s project funded and fulfilled. If so, this may have been one of her roles as deacon of the church at Cenchrea.”

      I have been paying attention to your research. 🙂

      I look at several possible roles of Phoebe as deacon in my essay and will present my conclusion(s) in the next part.

  2. Marg, I thought I ran across some instance(s) where prostatis or prostates was used in the sense of a dean of a college. Don’t remember where at this moment. Possibly in Liddel-Scott.

    1. In an endnote I’ve included every meaning for prostatēs listed in the LSJ. After work I’ll have a go at looking up the references (which I’ve replaced with the three dots in endnotes 11) to see if any of these are used in the sense that you mention, but that could take a long time, and I doubt that I will find them all.

      I know that the word is used for presidents or presiding officers of various events and various groups including different kinds of voluntary associations, some of which are called collegia. But the word “dean” doesn’t ring true for me, perhaps because of what “dean” and “college” mean in our modern day.

      1. I remember the college association. But my memory keeps saying that one of the many older uses was as some sort of ‘overseer’ in a college of learning. It’s probably not important. 🙂

  3. Lesly Massey writes that “likewise” is “customarily used to introduce the second and third entities in a series.” He suggests that the use of hōsautōs in 1 Timothy 3 “seems to place the three groups [episkopoi, deacons, and women] in categories of a similar nature.”

    So is there a possibility, that Paul is first setting up the rules for the minsistry of the episkopoi and the deacon in general and then he is describing both minsistry-requirements for woman?

    1. Hello Emil,

      I don’t think so. The qualifications for episkopoi (who were usually, but not always, men) are not picked up again after 3:7. The qualifications for diakonoi (deacons), male and female, are given in 3:8-13. Female diakonoi (deacons) were more common than female episkopoi in the first century.

      You may be interested in this article that looks at the role of episkopoi (church overseers) in the first century. https://margmowczko.com/manage-household-1-timothy-34/

  4. […] Paul manages to convey quite a bit of information about Phoebe in Romans 16:1–2. We know that she is from Cenchrea, a busy port city of Corinth. However, Phoebe’s family connections are not given, and she seems to be independent of a husband or father. Like many of the women in the Pauline letters, Paul does not identify Phoebe by her patriarchal or family status; rather, he uses three descriptive titles that are related to her ecclesial status and functions.[9] Thus, Paul describes Phoebe as “our sister”, a diakonos, and a prostatis. (Phoebe’s role as a prostatis will be discussed in part 5.) […]

  5. […] The inscription on the base of the 50 cm tall statuette reads, “The Pergamene Mother of the gods, Nicephoros [honours] his own (or, the beautiful ?) patroness” (Μητέρα θεῶν Πγαμηνὴν, Νεικηφόρος ν εἰδίαν προστ̣ά̣τιν). […]

  6. […] Perhaps one of the female diakonoi in Ephesus cared for widows. Later in 1 Timothy, Paul wrote, “If any ‘woman who is a believer/ faithful woman’ (pistē) has widows, ‘she should provide aid’ (eparkeō) for them and not burden the congregation, so that ‘they can provide aid’ (eparkeō) for the widows who are really in need” (1 Tim. 5:16). The widows in the first group may have belonged to an early order of widows. […]

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