Let me introduce you to our sister Phoebe. She is a deacon in the church at Cenchreae. I want you to welcome her in the Lord, as is proper for one of God’s people. Please give her whatever practical assistance she may need from you. She has been a benefactor to many people, myself included. (16:1-2)
Phoebe was a deacon?
Maybe that just means “servant,” like the KJV, the original NIV, the ASV says.
However, it seems there is something about the Greek word and the sentence structure that suggests the more formal words “deacon” or “deaconess” work better, as we find in the newest version of the NIV, the NLT, the CEV, and Wright’s KNT. Also, her role as described in this passage above indicates this was more than just a great servant-hearted woman who worked behind the scenes to make the ministry of the church in Cenchreae work smoothly. She was the “benefactor” of the Cenchrean church, likely meaning the church there met in her house. She likely also provided a room for the many traveling missionaries; Paul indicates he had been privy to her hospitality. All indications are that Phoebe was a well-to-do lady, maybe a business woman like Lydia the seller of purple cloth. It was possibly this business that took her to Rome — no little expense — and Paul was taking advantage of that agenda. Phoebe would have been carrying the letter to the Romans to the church there (depicted in the picture above even). As was custom, she would have read the letter aloud to the church in Rome and been available to answer clarifying questions given that she had just been with the author. Altogether, Phoebe was an esteemed leader in the early church known for her servant heart and at least this active effort to advance God’s kingdom.
This may be a realization that does not fit with what we have been taught in the past. That is another perk to a comprehensive reading plan. But this is an especially fitting way to end a letter that has focused on unmerited grace to all based on God’s love and calling, not one’s identity or status.