Summaries of this Series
In part one of this series on Phoebe of Cenchrea we saw that the apostle Paul was consistent with how he used the word diakonos—a word which only he, and no other author of New Testament books and letters, uses in the context of the church. Paul typically used the word for an agent with a sacred commission. It is in this context that Paul calls Phoebe “diakonos of the church of Cenchrea.” We also saw that one aspect of Phoebe’s ministry, providing materially for others, was a ministry that other New Testament women were involved in.
In part two we looked at Old Latin texts of Romans 16:1-12, as well as an early Latin translation of Origen’s commentary on these verses. We saw that the Latin translators believed Phoebe to have been an officially appointed deacon or minister of the church at Cenchrea. However, these translators were writing at a time when the role of female deacons had changed from that in the apostolic and post-apostolic period, and so they may not have understood Phoebe’s actual role or position as diakonos. In this chapter, we also saw that Pliny had tortured and interrogated two women whom he regarded as ministrae, deacons or ministers of the church.
In part three we looked at the possibility that Phoebe was involved in Paul’s planned mission trip to Spain and that she delivered, and perhaps paid for, his letter to the church at Rome. We also looked at the role of letter carriers in the first-century Roman Empire and saw that being a letter carrier was a role of some diakonoi in the apostolic and post-apostolic church, including Phoebe.
This photo is of a section of Paul’s letter to the Romans in Greek manuscript (GA 82). It has a subscript (highlighted) that reads, “To [the] Romans, written from Corinth, via Phoebe the Deacon.” While this manuscript dates to the 10th century, the exemplar may go back centuries earlier.
In part four, the ministries of Euodia and Syntyche of Philippi were compared with Phoebe’s. John Chrysostom saw similarities between the women. However, he was writing in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and so his comments regarding first-century women need to be read with caution. In part four we also looked at the development of governmental structures and church offices in the late first century which gradually became more formal and increasingly excluded women.
In part five we looked at whether the church at Ephesus had both male and female deacons. For reasons discussed in part 5, the conclusion reached is that the women in 1 Timothy 3:11 were female deacons. We also looked at the role of patrons in Roman society. By understanding Phoebe’s role as prostatis (“patron”) it becomes evident that the English translations that have rendered prostatis as “helper” in Romans 16:2 have been unjust and misleading. A prostatis was a wealthy and influential woman in society who exercised leadership. Similarly, the translation of diakonos as “servant” in many English translations of Romans 16:1 can be misleading. “Helper” and “servant” do not convey Paul’s commendation of Phoebe; these words downplay her credentials and her ministry.
In part six we looked at more evidence that deacons in the apostolic and post-apostolic period were envoys and agents who travelled and ministered in a variety of situations. Some deacons served people in desperate and dire situations, such as Christians imprisoned for their faith. They provided vital service. We also saw that some deacons and some women were teachers.
An Observation on Ministry Terms and Women
In studying this topic, I’ve noticed that, despite the participation of women in many kinds of ministries in apostolic and post-apostolic churches, there seems to have been a reticence in giving women official titles, even a title such as diakonos (“deacon”) that has a humble origin and simply means “agent” or “servant.” The unwillingness of most early Christian writers to describe women ministers using ecclesial terms seems similar to the unwillingness of Bible translators to correctly identify Phoebe as a minister, or deacon, and patron. This downplaying of the ministry of Phoebe, and of women in general, has resulted in women ministers in the New Testament being largely obscured and overlooked. Despite the reticence of others, Paul plainly called Phoebe by the ecclesial term, or title, diakonos.
A Tragic Trajectory
Diakonoi (“deacons”) were ministers who had a recognised authority in the first and second-century church. A hierarchy among church leaders quickly developed, however, that mostly excluded women from the official positions of bishop, elders, and deacons. After the first century, women were still ministering but seemingly less so, and there is no evidence that they were called diakonoi in extant Christian literature or letters of the second century. Conversely, there is ample evidence in the Apostolic Fathers that there were official male deacons in many churches at that time. Single women and widows could be set apart, or ordained, as virgins and widows, but these were minor church orders compared with what was available to men.
Female deacons and deaconesses are mentioned in later writings of the third and fourth centuries, and beyond. Some of these women were influential patrons, but none were permitted to minister in church services as many of their first-century sisters had done. Furthermore, the ministry of these later women was clearly differentiated from the work of men, and it was restricted in ways not seen in first-century church life.
This trajectory of differentiating between men and women ministers continued, as did the trajectory of giving increasing power and prestige to the men at the top of the ecclesial hierarchy, the bishops. This ruling power of the bishops was something Jesus had expressly cautioned his followers against. The concept that Christian leadership and ministry was humble service was largely forgotten. By the third century, male deacons were mostly seen as assistants to bishops and presbyters, and female deacons were greatly restricted in how they could serve. By the year 1000, deacons had declined to a minor degree of consecration for men on the career path of becoming priests. Eventually, male deacons disappeared entirely in the East, while deaconesses, virgins, and widows became cloistered nuns in the West.
For centuries women have been entirely excluded from many ministries that were open to men. This situation is unlike that experienced in the very early church, especially in Pauline churches and missions where men and women ministered in almost equal numbers, in similar ministries, and were described with similar ministry terms such as “deacon.”
 Paul uses the same ministry terms—co-worker (Rom. 13:3-4; Phil. 4:2-3), apostle (Rom. 16:6-7), and deacon (Rom. 16:1-2)—to describe both male and female ministers. Often he simply refers to them as brother (e.g. Timothy in Phlm. 1:1) or sister (Apphia Phlm. 1:2 cf Rom. 16:1).
 Much of the information in this paragraph has been drawn from Martin Heimgartner, “Diakonos” in Brill’s Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, Volume 4 (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 347.
This article is adapted from the conclusion of a paper submitted on the 6th of November 2014 on “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
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 in the Apostolic Fathers as Envoys and Teachers