Thursday, 6 February 2014
I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea… Romans 16:1
The last chapter of Romans begins with Paul’s introduction of Phoebe, one of approximately 35 people that he will mention in the verses to come. His note, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister” is used as a way of highlighting her as a member of the church. Because she was travelling with the epistle, she was either specially chosen or volunteered for the duty. Thus she was a woman of note and so Paul includes the thought “I commend.” As a believer in Christ, she was thus to be treated in a worthy manner. In Galatians 3:28, we read that –
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Being a woman in the empire at this time and with a number of Jewish people in the church at Rome, without Paul’s commending her to them, it is possible that they would have treated her in a manner of less weight than she was so entitled. Based on her name, we know that she was a Gentile. And because she is traveling with the epistle, she was most likely a widow. Women who were never married, or who were currently married, would not be given such freedom to travel. Therefore, being a widow is an obvious conclusion.
Next Paul notes concerning her, that she “is a servant of the church.” The Greek word for “deaconess” is used here and so many try to interject that she was an instructor of the church or one who performed some type of ministerial function. It should be noted though that Scripture will never violate one of its own precepts. In 1 Timothy 2:12, it is explicitly noted that a woman is not to teach or have authority over a man. Therefore, any role she held would have been in a capacity which would not violate this precept. There would have been a specific order of women in the church for the service of other women.
As Albert Barnes notes concerning this, “Reference is made to a class of females whose duty it was to ‘teach’ other females, and to take the general superintendence of that part of the church, in various places in the New Testament; and their existence is expressly affirmed in early ecclesiastical history. They appear to have been commonly aged and experienced widows, sustaining fair reputation, and suited to guide and instruct those who were young and inexperienced.”
In this, there is nothing intended to diminish the value or importance of women, but there is – just as in the family unit, a hierarchy which has been established and which is intended for the overall good of those within it. This precept has been neglected in modern churches and doctrine has suffered because of it. When one precept is violated, it quickly leads to the violation of others.
Lastly, Paul notes that her position was at the “church in Cenchrea.” Cenchrea was a sea-port near Corinth and so it can be deduced that the epistle was probably written by Paul there in Corinth.
Life application: When evaluating Scripture, such as the verse today where Phoebe is called a “servant” or “deaconess,” the entire body of Scripture must be considered. Just because the title “deacon” is used in certain ways when speaking of others, it does not immediately mean that all people mentioned with that title bore the same level of authority or responsibility. Scripture will never violate Scripture. One must be careful when making assumptions to include a detailed analysis of everything the Bible intends for us to see.
Gracious and wonderful God! What an honor it is to know that You who set the stars in their places and who started them into motion also have care for me. Surely this is true because You sent Jesus for humanity, of whom I am counted. And so I know that even I am considered in Your mind. It is a truly humbling thought as I look to the vast sky which is filled with an uncountable number of stars. Amen.