Based on a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine. Scripture: Romans 16:1-2
Romans 16 contains greetings for a whole host of people from various places. The first person named in this section of the letter to the church in Rome is Phoebe.
We don’t know much about Phoebe. This is the only place that mentions her and the only time that Paul refers to her. There’s a good chance—a very good chance— that most good church-going people have never heard of Phoebe at all. This is yet another Bible passage that never appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, the three-year cycle of readings followed by the Roman Catholic Church and many mainline Protestant churches.
In addition to the interesting nature of the absence of this part of Romans 16 in the lectionary, the mention of Phoebe also provides an interesting view into translation issues. Who exactly was Phoebe and what role did she play, as a co-worker of Paul in the early church, connected to the church in Cenchrea the eastern port of Corinth? Looking at a few translations, you might find yourself a bit perplexed:
From The Message: “Be sure to welcome our friend Phoebe in the way of the Master, with all the generous hospitality we Christians are famous for. I heartily endorse both her and her work. She’s a key representative of the church at Cenchrea. Help her out in whatever she asks. She deserves anything you can do for her. She’s helped many a person, including me.”
From the King James Version: “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:”
In the Common English Bible: “I’m introducing our sister Phoebe to you, who is a servant[a] of the church in Cenchreae.”
From The Living Bible: “Phoebe, a dear Christian woman from the town of Cenchreae, will be coming to see you soon. She has worked hard in the church there. Receive her as your sister in the Lord, giving her a warm Christian welcome.”
The New Revised Standard Version: “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.”
Servant, a key representative, a dear Christian woman, a sister, or deacon? For those who love a little Greek in your day, the correct answer is “deacon.” Or, more precisely, “diakonon,” which is the word that Paul uses—a generic male word that Paul uses to refer to his own ministry in Romans 15.
We may not know much about Phoebe, but we do know, or ought to know, that Paul considered her a “deacon,” a person who served, ministered, in and to the church. A “deacon” was a leader, someone who provided guidance and counsel, someone who worked with Paul not only to share the good news, to increase and build the church, but to encourage and strengthen those who had become a part of the church.
Phoebe was a deacon, an important leader and a co-worker with Paul.
In this section of the letter to the church in Rome, the last of Paul’s letters to survive the first century, Paul is commending Phoebe to the church. Why? What does that mean? Well, it’s quite possible, very possible, that it is Phoebe who was entrusted with carrying the letter and delivering the letter to Rome and to the church leaders in that city. And, still more than that, Paul may have relied on Phoebe to explain parts of the letter to the leaders in the church in Rome. She also very likely brought verbal greetings, messages and instructions. She was trusted and respected for her good work and her ability to be Paul’s messenger on behalf of Christ.
According to Paul, Phoebe was also a benefactor, a woman of means who shared her wealth in the church.
We may think that we do not know all that much about Phoebe, but we can glean quite a bit from the references to her in this letter, so long as we are careful and conscientious about what translation we read. There are plenty of translational issues in converting Greek into English. When it comes to women in the Bible, and women’s activities in the early church, we also face the issue of bias in how the Greek texts are translated. Phoebe is not simply a sister, a dear Christian woman, a key representative. She’s the sort of servant called a deacon.
And, appropriately, her name—Phoebe—means bright or shining. In lifting her up, we shine a light on this important woman, highlighting her significant role in the life and growth, the well-being and the strengthening, of the early church.
As we learn a bit about her, may she and her work and ministry as a deacon in the early church serve as a shining beacon for us as well, as we seek to follow in her footsteps—serving, ministering, sharing the good news of God’s love today and every day.