Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Phoebe, a Servant of the Church

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"I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also" (Rom 16:1,2).

The role of women in the Church has been an interesting and controversial issue among Christians. St. Paul, who is often falsely accused by the Western society of prejudice against women, is actually the one who refers the most to women in ministry by name. Roughly one third of the disciples named in chapter 16 of St. Pauls epistle to the Romans are women. The first and one of the most important of the Christian persons St. Paul mentions in his greetings section is a Gentile Christian named Phoebe.

The name Phoebe means 'bright, radiant or shining'. In Greek mythology it means 'pure' or 'radiant as the moon'. Phoebe was from the port city of Cenchrea, the eastern seaport of the city of Corinth. Cenchrea was about nine miles from Corinth. Corinth was on a narrow isthmus that connected southern Greece with northern Greece and the mainland of Europe. The existence of a church at one of these ports, and presumably in other similar places throughout the area, shows how widely the Holy Gospel had been preached. Temples of various pagan deities were located in this area, among them those of Isis, Venus, and Aesculapius. Phoebe is the only Christian womans name recorded at that place. She is believed to have delivered St. Paul epistle to the believers in Rome at the heart of the Roman Empire around A.D. 57 after traveling about 800 miles from Cenchrea to Rome.

Phoebe our sister: St. Paul calls Phoebe not just a sister but "our sister" emphasizing that she is not only a sister to St. Paul but the sister of all, a member of the Christian community.

Phoebe the servant: St. Paul refers to Phoebe as a 'servant of the church in Cenchrea'. The word 'servant' comes from the Greek word diakonos from which is derived the word 'deacon'. The verb diakoneo means to serve, to wait on, to furnish, to supply. Diakonia, the exact word used in this verse, means a messenger, a deacon, a minister of the church. In the New Testament, the word 'deacon' as a verb or noun is translated servant, or minister about 36 times. Phoebe is therefore referred to as a servant or a deaconess. In the early Church the emphasis was made on the service not on the office and it was more of an honor to be referred to as a servant than as a deaconess.

In the New Testament Church a woman was never called an apostle, or bishop, or shepherd but a servant or a deaconess. Women served as deaconess in the Christian community in apostolic times. This however was not an official clergical rank as that of the bishop or the deacon. The Apostolic Constitutions required that a deaconess either be a virgin or a once-married widow. The primary duties of the deaconess were ministering to women in their houses and assisting at baptisms of women as they come out of the water. However, anointing the women, the immersion, and the pronouncement of the words of baptism were duties reserved to the bishop or presbyter performing the baptism.

Phoebe the trustworthy: St. Paul desired to visit the Roman saints, so he wanted his letter to be delivered personally to those at the Church in Rome to prepare his way. Phoebe was obviously a woman highly trusted by St. Paul enough to carry his message to the church at Rome.

The Holy Bible does not mention exactly what kind of business made Phoebe go to Rome. The word business pragmati in Greek does not only mean material, or financial business but any affair, or matter, or interest that might concern her. She was doing important work for the Church to receive such a high commendation. St. Paul commands the Roman Christians to "receive her in the Lord" meaning to receive her as a faithful Christian, and a member of the body of our Lord Jesus Christ in a religious manner worthy of the saints. She was to be received, with love, honor and tender affection. St. Paul continues "assist her in whatever business" this implies that she rendered a whole variety of service. To say whatever business shows the utmost confidence St. Paul has in Phoebe and his trust in her wisdom, spirituality and competency as a servant of God.

Phoebe the helper: St. Paul gives good reason for such a warm and appropriate reception Phoebe deserved indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also. The word translated "helper" is the Greek word prostatis, meaning a patroness, who aided or defended others in their cause; one who undertook to manage the cause of strangers and foreigners. It was, therefore, an honorable title. Phoebe was not only a regular servant but a wealthy woman with money to use for travel and to protect and help others. She devoted her influence and means to the brethren landing at the port of Cenchrea. She probably had shown great kindness in various ways to the apostle, and to other Christians; probably by receiving them into her house. She used both her financial means and her own person to minister to the sick and distressed of her city. St. Paul was among those whom she benefited. He showed his gratitude to Phoebe in mentioning her particular kindness to him. She was a useful worker and laborer with St. Paul, and deserved to be noted in the Holy Bible that wherever this epistle is read her kindness to all is told for a memorial of her faithful service.

May we all men and women learn to be servants of the Lord not looking for an office or a title but with all humility serve one another as brothers and sisters members of the Body of Christ. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit Who indwells in us make us trustworthy to minister to others, to deliver Gods message and to be called the helper of all.

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