Jesus of Nazareth did not leave specific instructions about how he wanted his followers to be organised. Rather than leaving a set of rules concerning governmental structures, he gave guiding principles about relationships among his followers. One of these principles was a warning against emulating the kind of leadership that has been typical throughout most of the world’s history. Jesus commissioned his followers to be servants rather than masters or rulers (e.g., Mark 10:42–44, Luke 22:24–27, John 13:3–15). Jesus himself provided the example of “one who serves” (ho diakonōn) (Luke 22:27).
Following on from Jesus’ example and his teachings on service, the apostle Paul also emphasised that the community of Christian believers was to be led and ministered to by servants (1 Cor. 3:5, 4:1). In accordance with this idea, he frequently uses the words diakonoi and diakonia (which are sometimes translated as “servants” and “service” respectively) for Christian ministers and a range of ministries. The English word “deacons” is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonoi.
Paul is the only person in the New Testament to refer to ministers as diakonoi. It’s his word and he was consistent with how he used the word. Paul used it for people who were agents with some kind of sacred commission. As such, several diakonoi are described as being a diakonos of Christ (1 Tim. 4:6), or of God (e.g. 2 Cor. 6:4), or of the gospel (Eph. 3:7), or of a specific church—a church being a sacred community (Rom. 16:1).
Not once does Paul use any diakon– word for ordinary servants. Rather, he typically used the term diakonos for Christian ministers. These diakonoi include Paul himself (Rom. 15:25; 1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, etc), Timothy (1 Tim. 4:6), Epaphras (Col. 1:7), Tychicus (Eph. 6:21–22; Col. 4:7–9), Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5), and even Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:8). He also referred to a woman, Phoebe, as a diakonos in Romans 16:1-2. Phoebe was a diakonos, or deacon, of the church at Cenchrea.
Introducing Phoebe of Cenchrea to the Romans
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. Romans 16:1–2 NRSV
In the first two verses of Romans 16, Paul introduces Phoebe to the church in Rome and he gives her a warm recommendation. This is not unlike Paul’s recommendation of Timothy to the church in Corinth, given in 1 Corinthians 16:10–11, in that Paul wanted the churches to welcome Phoebe and welcome Timothy, recognise them as ministers, and hold them in high regard. Paul also asked the Romans to “receive [Phoebe] in the Lord.” The verb used here is prosdechomai and is “commonly employed in diplomatic correspondence for receiving a messenger.” The same verb occurs in Philippians 2:29 where Paul asks the church in Philippi to “receive” Epaphroditus. There is nothing in Romans 16:1–2 to indicate that Phoebe’s role in the church was any less important or less official than that of Timothy or Epaphroditus, or of any of Paul’s other coworkers.
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. Thus, Paul describes Phoebe as “our sister”, a diakonos, and a prostatis. (Phoebe’s role as a prostatis will be discussed in part 5.)
Being referred to as “our sister” is an acknowledgement that Phoebe is a member of the community of Jesus’ followers. The kinship relationship of siblings, or “brothers” (adelphoi), is one of the primary paradigms for relationships among Jesus’ followers in New Testament churches. The idea behind this paradigm is that brothers and sisters are children of the same Father—God, and that they have an equal status in the household of God.
Paul’s inclusion of the pronoun “our” (hēmōn) would have helped to promote a ready acceptance of Phoebe into the community of Roman Christians: Phoebe is not just Paul’s sister, a recommendation in itself, but the sister of all followers of Jesus, including those in Rome. When used in reference to a specific individual, however, Paul typically used the term “brother” or “sister” for a fellow minister or prominent Christian (e.g. Quartus in Rom. 16:23; Titus in 2 Cor. 2:13; Apphia in Phlm. 1:2).
The Harbour at Cenchrea
© V. Gilbert and Arlisle F. Beers (Source: Visual Bible Alive)
Phoebe’s hometown of Cenchrea was a major port city located on the eastern side of the Corinthian Isthmus and two hours walking distance from the city of Corinth.
The Ministry of Women in the Gospels and of Tabitha in Acts
The appellation of “our sister” is not difficult to understand, but what does Paul mean by calling Phoebe a diakonos? There has been some doubt about whether Phoebe was an officially ordained deacon, as the office of deacon may have developed after Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. (A consensus among scholars is that Paul wrote to the Romans from Corinth in the winter of 56–57.) Moreover, none of the Pre-Nicene Fathers, except perhaps for Origen (who we will look at in part two of this series), refer to Phoebe as a deacon. Nevertheless, Paul explicitly refers to Phoebe as a diakonos, so she is a minister or agent of some kind in the church at Cenchrea.
Aspects of Phoebe’s ministry follow on from a ministry of women that is already evident in the Gospels and in early Acts. In the Gospels, many women (pollai) from Galilee travelled with Jesus and were ministering or providing (diēkonoun) for him and his disciples out of their own means (Luke 8:2–3). Many Galilean women were also at the cross where they ministered or provided (diakonousai) for Jesus (Matt. 27:55–56). (Diēkonoun and diakonousai are diakon– words.) In chapter 16 of the third-century Didascalia Aspostolorum, Mary Magdalene, Mary the daughter of James and mother of Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, “and other women besides” are referred to, anachronistically, as women deacons (cf. Matt. 27:55–56). It seems that these women—who were disciples of Jesus, although this is never explicitly stated in the Gospels—were ministering in a way that the male disciples were not. Other New Testament women who “serve” (diakoneō) include Martha (Luke 10:40; John 12:2) and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt. 8:14–15; Mark 1:30–31; Luke 4:38–39). Though this service seems to have involved serving a meal.
The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) states that diakoneō was often used for the work of women in texts outside of the New Testament. However, this association of diakoneō and women is also evident within the New Testament. This unassuming association with women is significant considering that Jesus and Paul frequently use diakon– words for themselves and for Christian ministry in general. They regarded Christian ministry as both sacred and humble service.
In Acts 9:36-42 there is a short narrative about a woman named Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. She is described as a female disciple (mathētria) who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36 NRSV). Widows were among those she helped with her good works, which included making, or organising the making of, clothes for the poor. Ben Witherington notes that “Luke seems to depict Tabitha as at least moderately well-off and single (unmarried or widowed). . . [with a] specialized and ongoing ministry …” And he suggests that the main reason for recording Tabitha’s story “is that Luke wishes to reveal how a woman functioned as a deaconess, a very generous supporter of widows.” Tabitha, however, is never referred to with any diakon– words in Acts, so she may not have been recognised as a deacon in her church.
Tabitha and Phoebe, and other women like them, were among the first pastoral workers, or social workers, in the church as they provided materially for others and served those who needed assistance, whether widows or apostles. Helping others materially may well have been one role of diakonoi (i.e. deacons) in the apostolic church. Phoebe, however, was involved in more ministries than just providing for others. We will look at some of these other ministry roles in parts 3 and 5, but next I want to look at evidence that shows Phoebe was regarded as an official deacon.
 Diakonoi is sometimes used for table servants in ancient Greek as well as in a few verses in the Gospels (Luke 12:37; John 2:5, etc, cf. Matt. 8:15; John 12:2).
 An exception is in Romans 13:4 where Paul refers to a government minister as a diakonos. A government minister is not a Christian minister, and yet is described by Paul as having a sacred commission: “For the one in authority is God’s diakonos for your good” (Rom. 13:4). Another exception is Paul’s description of false apostles as agents (diakonoi) of Satan with a diabolic commission (2 Cor. 11:13–15). See also Galatians 2:17 where Paul asks the rhetorical question of whether Jesus is a diakonos, acting as an agent, of sin.
 Susan Mathew comments on the use of diakoneō and diakonia in the Pauline epistles:
The verb diakoneō is used in relation to Paul himself (Rom. 15:25; 2 Cor. 3:3; 8:19–20) and Onesimus (Phlm. 13). In Rom 15:25, Paul expresses that he is going to minister to the saints (diakonōn tois hagiois), which is important to our discussion because Phoebe’s ministry is also in relation to the saints in Cenchreae. He uses the abstract noun diakonia in a range of contexts and in relation to a variety of individuals. It includes himself (Rom. 11:13; 15:31; 2 Cor. 4:1; 5:18; 6:3; 2 Cor. 11:8); Stephanas and his household (1 Cor 16:15); Archippus (Col 4:17); Roman Christians (Rom. 12:7); Corinthian Christians (1 Cor. 12:5); Christians in general (Eph. 4:12); the ministry of death and condemnation (2 Cor. 3:7, 9); the ministry of the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:8); and the relief aid in the form of the collection (2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1, 12–13).
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), 110. <http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/369/>
 Diakonos has common gender The same word diakonos, with the same forms and declensions, was used for male and for female servants, agents, and ministers in Classical and Koine Greek. That is, the word has common gender, and is grammatically masculine or grammatically feminine depending on context. (It is not neuter.)
LSJ acknowledge that diakonos is feminine in Romans 16:1. They also give these two examples from Classical Greek literature where diakonos is feminine: Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae 1116 (with the feminine article) and Demosthenes, Against Timocrates 4.197.
“διάκονος” in H. G. Liddell, R. Scott, and H. S. Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, 9th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 398.
The heading for the entry of diakonos in BDAG is given with both a masculine and a feminine article indicating common (masculine and feminine) gender.
“διάκονος, ου, ὁ, ἡ” in Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Literature, 3rd ed. revised by Frederick Danker (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2000), 230–231.
Diakonos is grammatically feminine in Romans 16:1 and may be feminine in Romans 13:4 also. If exousia (“authority”) in Romans 13:3 is the diakonos (“agent, minister”) of God in Romans 13:4, which seems the best way to take the Greek, then diakonos must be feminine because exousia is a grammatically feminine word. See Meyer’s and the Expositor’s New Testament Commentaries on Romans 13:4 on Bible Hub here.
Diakonos with a feminine article When reading Greek texts where diakonos appears, the gender of the person becomes apparent when a masculine or feminine article, or participle, or a name such as Phoebe’s, is used with diakonos. For example, feminine articles are used for female deacons in Apostolic Constitutions 2.26.6, 3.16.2 and AC 3.16.4 (hē diakonos), AC 2.26.3 (hai diakonoi), AC 2.26.6 (tēs diakonou), AC 3.8.1 (tais diakonois), etc. This terminology is borrowed from chapter 16 of the earlier Didascalia Apostolorum. (The compiler of the Apostolic Constitutions drew on the earlier Didascalia Apostolorum (circa 230) for the first few chapters of his fourth-century work.)
Gynē Diakonos (woman deacon) In some instances, the word gynē (“woman”) was combined with diakonos to specify a woman deacon. For example, Clement of Alexandria writes, “We also know the directions ‘about women deacons’ (peri diakonōn gunaikōn) which are given by the noble Paul in his second letter to Timothy.” Stromata 3.6.53. (Clement was referring to 1 Timothy 3:11 but mistakenly mentions second Timothy.) Clement understood that Paul was referring to women deacons “from the context of the passage. Many exegetes have interpreted the passage in exactly this same way.” 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.
In his commentary on Romans 16, Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393–460) remarks, “Such was the significance of the church at Cenchreae that it had a woman deacon (gynaika diakonon), honorable and well known.”
Diakonissa (deaconess) A separate word for female deacons, diakonissa, was probably coined in the late second or early third century. The earliest surviving evidence of this word is in Canon 19 of Nicea (325). Diakonissa also occurs in Apostolic Constitutions 3.11.3, 6.17.4, 8.19.1, and 8.28.6-8 (circa 380). A slightly different word again, the plural of diakonē, is used in AC 8.13.4 (hai diakonia). Diakonissai (plural of diakonissa) are also mentioned in three passages in book 3 of Epiphanius’s Panarion 3.3.6, 3.4.1, 3.21.10 (374–377) (Greek text; English text)
Phoebe as Diakonos It is anachronistic to call Phoebe, a first-century woman, a deaconess. Moreover, English translations that incorrectly render the word diakonos as “deaconess” give “the inaccurate impression that Paul is drawing a distinction of roles based on gender.” Kristina LaCelle-Peterson, Liberating Tradition: Women’s Identity and Vocation in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 62.
 Paul visited Cenchrea during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:18).
 Paul commended Phoebe to a church he had not founded and not yet visited. Despite not having first-hand knowledge of the church in Rome, Paul is already acquainted with some of their ministers, both men and women, and sends them greetings in his letter (Rom. 16:3ff). He had met some of these ministers when his and their journeys intersected (e.g., Priscilla and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia). Others he may have known by reputation. Some scholars believe, however, that the last chapter of Romans was not originally part of Paul’s letter to the Romans, but part of a letter that Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus. Paul was well acquainted with the Christians in the Ephesian church. Nevertheless, I presume in this series that Romans 16 is part of a letter that Paul wrote to the Romans. (See also footnotes in Part 3.)
 Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Missionaries, Apostles, Coworkers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History”, Word & World 6/4 (1986), 423.
 Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians: Illuminating Ancient Ways of Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 304. Paul is following a pattern in his recommendation of Phoebe found in other ancient Greek letters. See C.W. Keyes, “The Greek Letter of Introduction”, American Journal of Philology 56 (1935), 28–48; and John L. White, “Light From Ancient Letters”, Foundations and Facets: New Testament, Robert W. Funk (ed) (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 186–220.
 Fiorenza, “Missionaries, Apostles, Coworkers,” 424.
 Lynn Cohick notes, “As a sister in the household of God, Phoebe would be expected to use her resources to better the lives of her brothers and sisters.” Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, 304.
 Joan Cecelia Campbell, Phoebe: Patron and Emissary (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 25.
 The ministry of the women mentioned in Luke 8:1–3 is often downplayed. These women, just like some of the men, had left everything to follow Jesus, and they supported his ministry financially.
 Anon., Didascalia Apostolorum, R. Hugh Connolly (transl.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929), 147–148.
 Hermann W. Beyer, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 2, Gerhard Kittel (ed.), Geoffrey W. Bromiley (transl.) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 82.
This article is adapted from chapter four entitled “Phoebe and the Ministry of Women,” of a research 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)
Postscript 1: January 2, 2019
The following is the text of an inscription from Bithynia (TAM IV, 1 355) that commemorates the deacon Eugenia.
περὶ μνήμης Εὐγενίας διακόνου ἀνενεωσάμεθα ☩
[τ]ὴν καταλιφθῖσαν ἡμῖν πύελον οἱ πτωχοὶ Γηραγαθέως.
In remembrance of Eugenia [the] deacon, we refurbished
the sarcophagus; [it was] whitewashed by us, the poor of Geragathe.
There are numerous inscriptions and other kinds of ancient documentary evidence, such as letters, that mention female deacons.
Postscript 2: September 4, 2021
This photo is of a section of Paul’s letter to the Romans in a 10th-century Greek manuscript (GA 82). It has a subscript (highlighted) that reads,
pros Romaious egaphē apo Korinthon dia Phoibēs tēs diakonou
To [the] Romans, written from Corinth, via Phoebe the Deacon.
While this manuscript dates to the 10th century, the exemplar may go back centuries.
The photo was shared on Twitter @Garrick_V_Allen
Postscript 3: June 27, 2022
This quotation from New Testament scholar and Church of England bishop J.B. Lightfoot is interesting. However, my observations of a male and female diaconate in the NT are not exactly the same as his. The quotation is from an address to clergy in his diocese given on December 14 1882, 140 years ago.
It has always been a matter of deep regret to me that in the received English Version of the Bible (which provisionally I will call Authorised) the female diaconate has been obliterated. As I read my [Greek] 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 defiance alike of the natural interpretation of the words and of the suggestions of the context; while in the latter (Rom. 16:1) the colourless word “servant” is substituted for the more precise term “deacon” or “minister.” Until this female ministry is restored, the Church of England in this diocese will remain one-handed.
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), 33–34. (Online Source)
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 and women in the Apostolic Fathers as envoys and teachers
Part 7: Summary and Conclusion
Other articles adapted from chapters in my “Deacons and Phoebe” essay
Jesus’ Teaching on Leadership and Community in Matthew’s Gospel
The Ministry of the Seven Men in Acts 6
Jesus had many female followers – many!
Tabitha: An Exemplary Disciple (Acts 9:36–42)
Believing Wives and Female Co-workers of the Apostles
Did Priscilla Teach Apollos?