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Deacons in the Philippian Church and the development of church offices

Deacons in the Philippian Church and Phoebe

A couple of years before writing to the Romans and introducing Phoebe to them (AD 56–57), Paul wrote a letter to the Philippians (c. AD 54–55). He addressed this earlier letter to the whole church at Philippi but made a point of including the episkopoi and diakonoi in his opening address (Phil. 1:1). The NRSV and the KJV translate episkopoi as “bishops” and diakonoi as “deacons” here. Many other English translations translate episkopoi as “overseers” while also translating diakonoi as “deacons”. By using the ministry title of “deacon”, these English translations convey the idea that the diakonoi in the Philippian church were official deacons of the church.

It is impossible to tell whether these deacons in the Philippian church were men or women, or both. Of the five Philippians named in the New Testament, however, three of them are women, Lydia (Acts 16:14–15, 40), Euodia, and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2–3).[1] So it is probable that these prominent women were deacons in the Philippian church, if not overseers.[2]

No one in the Philippian church is personally identified by the term episkopos or diakonos in Paul’s letter. Instead, Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and Epaphroditus,[3] who are the only Philippians mentioned by name in the letter, are primarily described using Paul’s favourite term for a ministry colleague, “coworker”, a term that covers a range of ministries. E.E. Ellis has observed, “The designations most often given to Paul’s fellow workers are in descending order of frequency as follows: coworker (synergos), brother (adelphos) [or sister (adelphē) as in the cases of Phoebe and Apphia], minister (diakonos) and apostle (apostolos).”[4] As well as being referred to as coworkers, Paul speaks warmly of Euodia and Syntyche.

Interestingly, John Chrysostom (c. AD 349–407) compares Paul’s commendation of the women in Philippians 4:2–3 with Paul’s commendation of Phoebe in Romans 16:1–2.

These women [Euodia and Syntyche] seem to me to be the chief [to kephalaion] of the Church which was there, and [Paul] commends them to some notable man whom he calls his “yokefellow”; he commends them to him . . . as he does in the Epistle to the Romans, when he says, I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a deacon of the church at Cenchrea. (Homily on Philippians, 13.)[5]

Chrysostom also mentions Phoebe elsewhere, remarking that she was an official diakonos. In his 30th homily on Romans, he refers to Paul’s praise of Phoebe: “See how many ways he takes to give her dignity. For he has mentioned her before all the rest . . . Moreover he has added her rank, by mentioning her being diakonos.”[6] In his 31st homily on Romans, Chrysostom refers back to Phoebe and writes that Paul addressed her “by her title, for he does not call her servant of the church in an undefined way . . . but . . . as having the office of diakonos.”[7] Phoebe’s ministry as diakonos and as benefactor in the church at Cenchrea may have had some similarities with that of powerful deaconesses in Chrysostom’s time. [More on this in Part 5.]

Phoebe’s ministry as a diakonos may also have had some similarities with that of Euodia and Syntyche. It is possible that Phoebe was a coworker of Paul and, like Euodia and Syntyche, laboured alongside the apostle in the work of the gospel in some way (cf. Phil. 4:3). Furthermore, it is apparent the Philippian church had a financial partnership with Paul, possibly headed by Euodia and Syntyche. The Philippians had sponsored Paul’s ministry (Phil. 1:5; 4:15, 18; etc), as did Phoebe in her role as Paul’s benefactor.

A clearer similarity between the women is that Paul asks his unnamed companion to help Euodia and Syntyche, and then adds a phrase indicating why the women should be assisted: because they “laboured with me in the gospel.” Paul likewise asks the Romans to help Phoebe in “whatever she may require” because “she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well” (Rom. 16:2). The help that Paul is asking for is assistance and support in the ministry being undertaken by his female colleagues. Considering the similarities, Euodia and Syntyche may have been diakonoi in the church at Philippi, as Phoebe was at Cenchrea.

The Development of Church Offices in the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Church

In the first few decades of the church, believers functioned in ministries depending on their abilities without necessarily having titles or holding official positions. Linda Belleville writes, “With few exceptions, believers assumed a ministry role in the church not because they were appointed, nor because they had received professional training, but because they possessed the appropriate gift(s) to handle the task.”[8]

Kevin Giles suggests that the titles of bishops (episkopoi) and deacons (diakonoi) mentioned in Philippians 1:1 may simply have emerged as they developed “from function to title”, and that Philippi may have been one of the first New Testament churches to use ministry titles in an official way. Giles writes,

. . . the first deacons were the most closely associated with [bishops-episkopoi] in the leadership of the church. At first, any special service for Christ was spoken of as diakonia and the person who performed it as a diakonos, but as time passed, and perhaps for the first time at Philippi, persons active in the life of the church were designated as diakonoi to distinguish them from others called episkopoi.[9]

Church growth, and the looming threat of heresy with its unsettling repercussions, resulted in many churches developing stable governmental structures with ongoing offices.[10] Craig Blomberg describes church offices in New Testament times as having “a settled or consistent function, role, or position.”[11] These offices, as well as customs of ordination, however, developed over time, and the office of deacon probably became established at different times in different churches in different locations. Nevertheless, towards the end of the first century, “bishop” (episkopos) and “deacon” (diakonos) became titles for the two main leadership offices in many churches.

Clement of Rome indicates that the offices of bishops and deacons were established in his time. In 1 Clement 42:4 (written c. AD 96) he writes about the origin of the twin orders, or offices, of bishops and deacons: “So, preaching both in country and in towns, [the apostles] appointed their first fruits, when they had tested them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons for the future believers.” In 1 Clement 40:2 he writes that the apostles “gave the offices a permanent character”, meaning that vacancies left by deceased ministers were to be filled by “other approved men” so that the offices would continue.

The Didache, like first Clement, indicates that only men could be ministers and occupy the offices of bishop and deacons: “Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and the teachers” (Did. 15:1). However, some post-apostolic churches had women among their deacons, or rather, they had women who ministered like deacons (e.g., Alce and Gavia of Smyrna).[12]

From the letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, and the letter of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, it appears that deacons were ubiquitous in post-apostolic churches. Writing in around AD 110, Ignatius simply assumes that the churches he writes to have a three-fold governmental structure: a single bishop who is assisted in leadership by a group of official elders (or presbyters) plus at least one deacon (e.g., IgnMagn 2:1; 6:1; IgnTrall 3:1; IgnPhild 4:1; IgnSmyrn 8:1). These groups of leaders were not necessarily large. The church at Magnesia, for example, had four leaders: Damas (bishop), Bassus and Apollonius (elders), and Zotion (deacon) (IgnMagn 2:1). Polycarp (c. 120), in his letter to the Philippians, however, tells the church to subject themselves to the leadership of the elders and deacons, but does not mention bishops (PolPhil 5:3). This indicates that at this time there could still be differing leadership structures in different churches. Nevertheless, it is evident in many passages of the Apostolic Fathers, especially in the letters of Ignatius, that leadership in the early second-century church was structured hierarchically, and that it included deacons who were leaders, but with a bishop over them.

Several passages clearly indicate that deacons had ecclesiastic authority in the early second century. For example, Ignatius tells the church in Smyrna to “Respect deacons as the commandment of God” (IgnSmyrn 8:1). It is important to note, however, that no women are mentioned in the Apostolic Fathers as having the title or position of bishop, elder, or deacon (or deaconess.) Celibate women could be ordained as widows or virgins. Some widows and consecrated virgins were dependent on the church for their livelihood and, in exchange, they prayed for the church, practised hospitality, and performed various ministries among women and orphans (IgnSmyrn 13:1; IgnPol 4:1). First Timothy mentions an order of widows in the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 5:3–16), yet it also mentions women who were deacons (1 Tim. 3:11). Unlike the Apostolic Fathers, the New Testament shows that women were deacons in the first-century apostolic church. We look at the 1 Timothy passage regarding the qualifications of deacons in Part 5.


[1] This assumes that Lydia is not one and the same as either Euodia or Syntyche. The men are Clement and Epaphroditus. Syzygos, “yokefellow” or “companion”, is probably an appellation rather than a name. (See Acts 16:14, 40 and Philippians 3:25; 4:2–3.) For more about Euodia and Syntyche see Euodia and Syntyche: Women Church Leaders in Philippi.

[2] Commenting on the episkopoi and diakonoi greeted in Philippians 1:1, Madigan and Osiek write,

. . . Episkopos carried none of the connotations that the word “bishop” does today, or even after Ignatius of Antioch. It is a term borrowed from management functions, meaning supervisor or overseer. Neither does the term diakonoi, carry the connotations that it would acquire in the next century. What is clear, however, is that these terms in Phil 1:1 need not be understood as referring to an all-male group, in light of Rom 16:1-2, where Phoebe has the same title. Moreover, the importance of Euodia and Syntyche in Phil 4:2 . . . may suggest that these two women are among the episkopoi, probably leaders of house churches.
Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek (eds. and transl.) in Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), 11.

[3] Epaphroditus is further described by several more ministry terms in Philippians 2:25.

[4] E.E. Ellis, “Paul and his Coworkers”, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald Hawthorne and Ralph Martin (eds) (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 183.

[5] Chrysostom, “Homily 13 on Philippians”, transl. John A. Broadus. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 13. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[6] Chrysostom, Homily 30 on Romans”, transl. J. Walker, J. Sheppard and H. Browne, and revised by George B. Stevens. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 11. Ed. Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[7] Chrysostom “Homily 31 on Romans”, transl. J. Walker, J. Sheppard and H. Browne, and revised by George B. Stevens. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 11. Ed. by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1889) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[8] Linda L. Belleville, Women Leaders and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), 40.

[9] Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians (Sydney: Collins Dove Publishers, 1989), 68.

[10] “The term ‘office’ in business, politics, education, and church life refers to a position having tenure, duration, specific duties, and rewards of some kind.” Daniel J. Harrington, The Church According to the New Testament: What the Wisdom and Witness of Early Christianity Teach Us Today (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2001), 159.

[11] Craig L. Blomberg, “Women in Ministry: A Complementarian Perspective”, Two Views of Women in Ministry, James Beck (ed.) (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 152.

[12] For more about Alke and Gavia see The Church at Smyrna and her Women.

Postscript: Women Deacons in the Didascalia Apostolorum and Apostolic Constitutions

Women deacons and their roles are mentioned in Didascalia Apostolorum written in Syria in the 200s. See chapter 16, here. And deaconesses are mentioned in the Apostolic Constitutions written in the late 300s. See 2.26 (p. 410) and section 7 (p. 421). These female deacons had more clearly defined and delineated roles than those of earlier women ministers (diakonoi).

My articles on women elders mentioned in these documents are here.
My article on an unnamed female teacher and deacon in Antioch (in Syria) in the 360s is here.
My article on Publia, a deacon and choir mistress in Antioch in the 360s, is here.

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)

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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 as envoys and teachers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion

Explore more

Chrysostom on 5 Women Church Leaders in the New Testament
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women
Euodia and Syntyche: Women Church Leaders at Philippi
Lydia of Thyatira: The Founding Member of the Philippian Church
The Church at Smyrna and Her Women
Believing Wives and Female Coworkers of the Apostles (1 Cor. 9:5)
Diakon– Words in Major Greek Lexicons
A Female Teacher and Deacon in Antioch (AD 360s)
A Christian Lady Teacher in Egypt in the 300s AD

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

9 thoughts on “(4) Phoebe: Deacon of the Church in Cenchrea

  1. Thank you for your study on women’s ministry.
    I am a Greek gospel minister that has gone through criticism from men ministers.
    I have been for several years at ease deciding not to argue any more on the subject but do the will of God helping people from the churches who ironically suffer mental disorders having developing them attending a church.

    1. Hi Jaan, I’m sorry that you’ve been criticised. Some of the strongest criticism that I’ve received has been from women rather than men.

      1. It is interesting how strongly women can criticize and condemn women who break free from the hierarchical bondage traditions. I have suspected it partly may be because they had to at some point in their own lives, set aside their own gifts and spiritual anointings in order to conform to the comp mold. To face that squarely can be quite painful, because one has to acknowledge that by giving in to this misinformation they have done it to themselves. And then to look at the years of waste and of disobedience to the Lord by turning aside from the urgings of the Spirit is painful and can feel humiliating. It would be easy to be angry and then take it out on those who are freed.

        I’m thinking that we who have freed ourselves and managed to obey God’s urgings must learn how to free our sisters from this condemnation. All those years they have seemed to waste can be turned into a wealth of lessons and inner discipline that is gold. Most people tend to start using their gifts before they are properly honed and strengthed anyway. So, being silent for so long can in itself become a blessing to now be ready for use.

    2. Thank you for your reply.

      I can understand that women may be critical, but they have been brainwashed and they believed the culture to be nature. I was this way too. But the fire of the Lord in me and his prophetic leading my life gave me courage to minister. Then and only then I faced hatred and great opposition from men, brothers and ministers.

  2. I’m longing to get back to ministry without titles or positions. Today they call that “organic church.”

  3. Yes Steve, I agree with you.
    I myself do not need the titles that others have involved me in to this thinking. I want to help people, and this is what I do by my teaching, counseling, and praying for them.

  4. Love the research on deacons and elders. So misunderstood today. Jan and Steve, love you comments! I agree the terms deacon and elder should be more about function than title.

    I have been doing some research on ordination. Do, you know any good sources on early church practice in this area? I am finding it difficult to support modern practice from the original biblical texts. My thinking is that, if ordination was not established as we know it,arguing that women can or cannot be ordained (in the modern sense) may be the wrong argument. The argument should be about function and gifting, not ordination.

    1. Hi Alan,

      Do you know the Didascalia Apostolorum (c. 200)?
      It has quite a lot to say on church orders.

      Tertullian also mentions bits and pieces in his works.

      1. I will check that out. Thanks!

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