Phoebe & Female Deacons

I’ve recently begun reading Scot McKnight’s work, Reading Romans Backwards and have thoroughly enjoyed his approach to studying Paul’s letter to the Roman churches. I’m undertaking a study of the Roman letter myself in preparation for a 2020 Bible class of the work which I’ll teach at Glendale Road. McKnight’s work, along with a few other resources, will inform my study of this letter and how I’ll teach it with McKnight’s approach being one that I also favor because of its utility. McKnight begins in territory familiar to me—with Phobe, whom he deems to have been the letter bearer and reader. In 2016 I authored a small study book, Being Phoebe: How Women Served in Early Christianity and explored the notion of deaconesses therein. McKnight writes,   

Phoebe is also a “deacon.” The Greek term diakone can be used more generally for a “servant”: Roman officials are servants (Rom. 13:4); Christ is a servant (15:8); Paul and his minister associates are servants (Col. 1:7; 1 Cor. 3:5; 1 Tim. 4:6) as also are counterfeit ministers (2 Cor. 11:15). But the term, especially when connected to a church (as Rom 16:1 is), brings to mind the more official recognized ministry or office of “deacon.”

What I was unaware of was that when the term was connected to a congregation it denoted the office of “deacon.” Scholars disagree on whether or not she was a “servant” or “deaconess,” but this is ground that I’ve plowed in my own study of the topic. Early Christians believed her to have been a “deaconess” as early as Origen (c. 185–251) with John Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyr following. Earlier than Origen, however, was a letter from Pliny the Younger while he was governor in Bithynia from 111–13 CE. He exchanged letters with the Emperor on a variety of issues, but in one letter he detailed his first encounter with Christians.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.[…]Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. (Letters 10.96)

When he wrote to the emperor, he noted that he had tortured two female slaves who were called “deaconesses.” Again, we are not sure whether this was a specific term or a general term, but his letter seems to indicate the office of such rather than just the general servant. Pliny’s letter was translated from Latin, and the word used here is the one from which we get our word “minister”—ministrae. “Deaconess” is an appropriate translation, but so is “servant.” 

In Didascalia 16 (c. 200–50), the primary duties of the deaconess are thus described:

In the first place, when women go down into the water, those who go down into the water ought to be anointed by a deaconess with the oil of anointing; and where there is no woman at hand, and especially no deaconess, he who baptizes must of necessity anoint her who is being baptized. But where there is a woman, and especially a deaconess, it is not fitting that women should be seen by men?[…]And when she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her, and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be unbroken in purity and holiness. For this cause we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important. For our Lord and Saviour also was ministered unto by women ministers, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the daughter of James and mother of Jose, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee [Matt 27:56], with other women beside. And thou also hast need of the ministry of a deaconess for many things; for a deaconess is required to go into the houses of the heathen where there are believing women, and to visit those who are sick, and to minister to them in that of which they have need, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness.[…]But let a woman rather be devoted to the ministry of women, and a male deacon to the ministry of men. 

As far as early history goes, that’s it. 

Were one to consult Alexander Campbell’s living oracles, he translates Romans 16:1 as “deaconess” rather than “servant.” Nearly all nineteenth-century writers in the Stone-Campbell Movement advocated for female deacons but not to teach or exercise authority over men. J. W. McGarvey in 1906 wrote against female deacons because several aspired to higher offices, and with their having been a division of Churches of Christ and the Disciples (North), the latter retained female deacons while the south altogether denied them recognition.

Scot McKnight, Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2019), 4.

Steven C. Hunter, Being Phoebe: How Women Served in Early Christianity (Dallas: Start2Finish Books, 2016). 60–66.

Alexander Campbell, The Living Oracles (1826; repr., Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate Restoration Reprints, 2001), 305.

J. Stephen Sandifer, “Deacons, Diaconate,” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, eds. Douglas A. Foster, et. al. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 260–61.

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