Phoebe: Mother of Preachers
I’m introducing our sister Phoebe to you, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae. Welcome her in the Lord in a way that is worthy of God’s people, and give her whatever she needs from you, because she herself has been a sponsor of many people, myself included.
Romans 16: 1-2
Phoebe: Deacon & Patron
Phoebe was a minister or deacon (“diakonos” in Greek), to the church at Cenchreae. She was a woman of means with social connections which gave her the ability to travel and minister to the early Christian community. She is known for bringing Paul’s letter to the Romans which he sent with her to gain him access and welcome into the Roman Christian community for his upcoming visit.
Paul introduces Phoebe as a patron (“prostatis” in Greek), endorsing her as an important member of the church who had given generously and worked hard for its mission. Phoebe is one of ten women mentioned by Paul in the introduction to Romans, all important leaders in the Roman Christian community.
Paul’s letter to Timothy gives us qualifications for deacons and women were included in this definition. The role of “deaconess” was not developed until centuries after the church was first established. For this reason and for many others we will look at, Paul endorsed and included women prominently in this role of church leadership.
Greek scholars of the New Testament have pointed out that most occurrences of the greek “diakonos” have been translated as “minister”, however when it comes to its relation to Phoebe, some translators have chosen the word “servant” instead.
Paul did not differentiate between Phoebe’s work and men’s work, however bias about women’s work versus men’s throughout history has caused biblical translators to change the word in relation to Phoebe because of her gender. If Paul wanted to call Phoebe a servant he would have used the common term for that: “doulos”, instead he called her “minister” along with the men and himself.
Paul recognized Phoebe’s work as similar, if not the same as his own.
Paul describes Phoebe as a “patron” or “benefactor” in Romans 16:2 but there is actually no english equivalent to this greek word that is accurate enough. Its closely related words are more commonly translated as ruler, manager or leader.
This verb “prostatis”, is only used once in the New Testament but its cognate appears multiple times when discussing similar issues of authority.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways similar words have been translated from προστάτις, or “prostatis”, in the New Testament:
In Rom. 16:12: “prostatis” when discussing Phoebe, it is translated to: “benefactor” (and "helper" in the NKJB and NASB)
In Rom. 12:8: “proistamenos” when discussing church leadership is translated to: “leader”
In 1 Thess. 5:12: “proistamenous” when discussing church leadership is translated to: “have charge over you”
In 1 Tim. 5:17: “proestōtes” when discussing church leadership is translated to: “rule”
In 1 Tim. 3:4: “proistamenon” when discussing household organization is translated to: “manages”
In 1 Tim. 3:5: “prostēnai” when discussing household organization is translated to: “to manage”
In 1 Tim. 3:12: “proistamenoi” when discussing household organization is translated to: “managing” 
Given this evidence, why has this word “prostatis” ever been translated to "helper", as it is in the NKJV and the NASB?
The word Paul used in Romans 12:8 clearly defines Phoebe as a leader with authority.
One difficulty we are faced with is that using the english words “patron” or “benefactor” implies service and generosity but they do not suggest authority or leadership.
Translators have had to make a decision each time on how to communicate this verb, “prostatis”, to english readers, creating implications about how we understand Phoebe's role in the church.
Phoebe: Trusted & Chosen
Phoebe was a woman entrusted by Paul to bring his letter to Rome and preach his words to the local congregation. By her reading the letter aloud, she was teaching and exhorting as a trusted and capable woman, bringing her own oral skill and preaching ability to his words.
Paul exhibits no preference of men over women by his act of selecting a female to teach at the church in Rome. Additionally, Paul sends his greetings to many key female leaders of the church such as Priscilla and Junia in the same letter.
Phoebe was chosen by Paul to present his words to the house churches and to interpret the letter to those who desired more clarity, had questions, or wanted to hear more.
We do ourselves, the church, and women especially a disservice if we fail to recognize what the implications of this assignment tasked to Phoebe meant for her as a leader and intelligent woman of authority.
Today, we have a title for the person that can stand before a congregation, communicate with oral skill and clarity the message of scripture. That title is “preacher”.
Where Chritianity spread in the early church, women lead in house churches, and women preached. Mary, the mother of John mark, oversaw a house church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12-17), Apphia oversaw a house church in Colossae with two others (Philem. 2), Nympha led in Laodicea, Lydia led in Thyatira, and Phoebe led in Cenchreae (Col. 4:15; Acts 16:15 and Rom. 16:1).
If all people are called to preach and testify about Jesus, (Acts 10:42-43), why have women ever been excluded?
- Karen Jo Torjesen. When Women Were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (San Francisco, CA First HarperCollins, 1995) 32.
- Ibid., 33
- Leanne M. Dzubinski & Anneke H. Stasson, Women in the Mission of the Church: Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History. (Grand Rapids, MI 2021) 46.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 48.
- Ibid., 49.
- Jeff Miller, “Letter from the Editor,” Priscilla Papers: The Academic Journal of CBE International, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Autumn 2020): 3.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 3.
- Torjesen. When Women Were Priests. 33.