Phoebe: Female Deacon

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.

Romans 16:1 NIV

The English word “deacon” is really not a word, but rather a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos. In the NIV diakonos is translated 19 times as “servant,” 4 times as “deacon,” 4 times as minister, once each as “attendants” and the verb “promotes.” Again, the most common translation is “servant” with “deacon” and “minister” tied for second.

What do we make of this? One could try to argue that Phoebe isn’t really a “deacon”, but rather a “servant” as we all should be. That’s fine, but it’s the same Greek word used to discuss the qualities of “deacons” in 1 Timothy 3. Whether you want to make the word servant, minister, or deacon…it’s all the same word in Greek – diakonos.

We, in our English translations, attempt to draw differences between these various distinctions. Greek does not. Whether we’re being told that “The greatest among you will be your diakonos,” (Mt. 23:11), or “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a diakonos…”, it’s the same word.

Some may say they have been taught that only men are allowed to be “deacons.” This obviously comes with a partial understanding of the word deacon, seeing as Christ himself has called us all to be diakonos (Jn. 12:26). But let’s look at the text in 1 Timothy 3:11.

“In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.”

1 Timothy 3:11 NIV

If gynaikis is translated as “wives” instead of “women” (as some translations do) you might assume that there is no authorization for a woman to be a diakonos. The obvious problem here is that we do have a woman diakonos in the New Testament.

But if taken as the NIV translates this passage, it is clear that Paul has a specific stipulation for the female diakonos to not be malicious talkers. Does this make sense within the context of 1 Timothy? Yes it does!

As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.

1 Timothy 5:11-15 NIV

Seems like Paul knew Timothy had a problem in Ephesus with some women who were malicious talkers “saying things they ought not to.” That’s not the type of person the church needs as a diakonos to other believers.

Diakonos – servant, minister, deacon. It’s the same word. And we have examples of males and females doing this work in the New Testament church. For now, what can we learn from Paul’s writing?

(To read about female deacons within the American Restoration Movement, look at Distant Voices by Leonard Allen, God’s Woman by C.R. Nichol, or The Stone-Campbell Movement by Leroy Garrett.)

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