Proponents of women deacons and/or deaconesses point to Romans 16:1 as one of the main arguments. The argument is based in the fact that Phoebe was a faithful servant in the church at Cenchreae. The idea here is that because Paul attached Phoebe’s service directly to a church (tes ekklesia, “of the church”) as a formal modifier she must have been a part of the church leadership.1 But this argument is not iron clad.
In Romans 16, Paul recognizes a number of people who had been of service to him and others. He speaks fondly of these people and in most cases gives a quick description of their service. Paul gives the longest description to Phoebe in vv. 1-2.
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [diakonon] of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (ESV)
The NASB, ESV, KJV and other translations use the word “servant” in verse one to describe Phoebe’s service to the church in Cenchreae. The NIV and NRSV translations use the word “deacon.” It is obvious that Paul thinks a great deal of Phoebe; she was a faithful and dedicated servant. Paul instructs the church at Rome to “welcome her in the Lord.” It is probable that Phoebe was the one that delivered this letter to the church in Rome.2
So, was Phoebe a formal deacon of the church in Cenchreae?
Grammatical Structure and Context
The noun Paul used to describe Phoebe is diakonos. That word is different than the nouns Paul used when he wrote about other women servants. That alone seems odd. This is the noun Paul used in 1 Timothy 3:8, 12 and Philippians 1:1 when addressing the formal office of deacon. This noun root is the primary reason for the confusion of how to translate and understand Phoebe’s position in the church. Below are several English translations of Romans 16:1:
New International Version
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae…”
New Living Translation
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea…”
Revised Standard Version
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cen’chreae…”
New King James Version
“I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea…”
English Standard Version
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae…”
New American Standard Bible
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea”
Christian Standard Bible
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchreae.”
These translations refer to Phoebe as a deacon, deaconess, and servant—confusing at best. Which translation is correct? Was Phoebe a female deacon, or just one of the many believers who served in the church? Is the term “deacon” here being used as the formal title and therefore showing she had a leadership position as outlined in 1 Timothy 3?
Diakonos in Romans 16:1 is the same as 1 Timothy 3:8, 12 and Philippians 1:1. Diakonos is a second declension noun meaning it is either masculine or neuter in form. There is no feminine form of diakonos in Greek. In Romans 16:1, it is masculine in form and translated as feminine based on context; as when attached to a woman like Phoebe. There is no firm position to take on whether or not Phoebe was a formal deacon of the church based on grammar alone. It is all within the interpretation of the context, which is why there is so much confusion and debate.
Careful attention to the context is the only way to unfold this translation mystery. When looking at grammatical structures of other passages that use diakonos in the context of church service it is uniformly translated “minister” or “servant.” Five times diakonos refers to a man but is not translated as “deacon”:
- Paul speaking of himself in Ephesians 3:7;
- Paul speaking of Tychicus in Ephesians 6:21;
- Paul speaking of Timothy in 1 Tim 4:6;
- Paul speaking of Epaphras in Colossians 1:7;
- Paul calls Christ a “servant” a diakonon in Romans 15:8, same book, one chapter earlier.
These passages use the same noun form and same grammatical structure as Romans 16:1 and are consistently translated “servant” or “minister.”
If Romans 16:1 is the scriptural foundation for women deacons, then there is a void in Scripture that provides the role, qualifications of the office, and how women deacons fit in the leadership structure. 1 Timothy 3 is not that scriptural foundation. Deacons have delegated authority from Christ for elder-appointed tasks. Leadership and management are a major part of the deacon office, and Paul expressly stated that women are not to have authority over men (1 Tim 2:12). It is only natural that if women are to be deacons, Scripture would have provided instructions on these issues.
Timing is another contextual consideration. The book of Romans was written eight to ten years before 1 Timothy.3 When considering if Phoebe is a formal deacon and thus a leader in her church, a part of the contextual consideration is the timing of when the office was universalized. This is the same contextual application as in Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 3, in which the men of Acts 6 were technically not deacons.4 The seven men of Acts 6 could not be deacons because the office of deacon had not yet been created. Philippians was written around AD 61 and 1 Timothy between 65-67 AD.5 Paul addressed the church elders and deacons in Philippians. Scripture acknowledges no formal office of deacons prior to 61 AD. Thus, at the time of writing Romans in 56-57 AD there were no recognized deacons. Just as it was determined that it is inappropriate to call the seven deacons, the same contextual considerations determine that it is wrong to call Phoebe a deacon.
The translation of Romans 16:1 is difficult based on the noun Paul used. Careful study of contextual considerations shows that if women were to be deacons as part of the formal leadership structure, then there is a void in Scripture explaining their qualifications and role. However, the Word of God is not void in any area of truth, being completely sufficient in all things (2 Tim 3:14-17). Lastly, the timing of the writing of Romans is earlier than other passages that identify formal church leadership structure. For these reasons we conclude Phoebe was a faithful servant and not a deacon of her church.
1. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. IV: Epistles of Paul (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House 1931), 25.
2. Gundry, Survey , 278.
3. Everett Harrison, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans, Vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 255.
4. The seven of Acts 6 initiated the office of deacon. They were servants appointed by the apostles (elders) for a delegated task. The formal office of deacon was universalized by Paul thirty years after the events of Acts 6. See chapter four.
5. Ralph Earle, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1, 2 Timothy, Vol. 11, ed., Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 334; Robert P. Lightner, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Philippians, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 647.