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Sep22FriSeptember 22, 2017 by the TWR Canada Women’s Ministry Team
In this month’s TWR Women of Hope Prayer Calendar, we are praying for women in ministry. There are many women in the Bible noted for their service in ministry, and in Romans 16:1-2, Paul introduces us to Phoebe (sometimes written Phebe):
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“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant 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,” Romans 16:1-2 (ESV).
This is all we know about Phoebe, but there’s a lot we can learn about Phoebe’s ministry from this passage and about how we can pray for women in ministry.
Many scholars believe it was Phoebe who carried Paul’s letter to the Romans. This would seem to signal Paul’s great trust in this woman. He takes the time to recommend her to those receiving the letter, which was customary for that time, but it would seem to imply that she was not known to the church in Rome. Her name is Greek and means moon goddess, which some have felt implied her parents were worshippers of Apollo.
The word servant, as it is often translated, is the same word Paul uses for deacons in other letters. So, Pheobe was a deaconess at the church in Cenchreae. Cenchreae was a large port about nine miles from Corinth, so far enough away that the believers in that city would have had their own church. Port cities were known for the wide array of nationalities, religious practices and the depravity available there.
There’s been a lot of debate over what Paul meant by calling Phoebe a deaconess. Many scholars point to a church tradition (written of by Pliny the Younger) where men were appointed deacons over the whole church, but because women were often segregated and kept hidden, widows of excellent reputation were charged as deaconesses to minister directly to the women in the church. A deaconess’ ministry would have included providing help to the widows, the poorest segment of any church in many cases.
Paul asks that the church in Rome help Phoebe. It seems clear that she travelled to Rome primarily on other business. She wasn’t known to the church in Rome, so Paul asks that the believers there speak for her and enable her to complete her task. When you are not known in a new place, having someone to point you in the right direction, give recommendations or even vouch for you is incredibly helpful. However, it would involve some risk for the believers in Rome if Phoebe turned out not to be the person Paul claimed she was.
The ESV says patron, but the NASB calls Phoebe a helper of many. Combined, we get an idea of the kind of ministry Phoebe was doing, as a patron could be the financial backer, the public face or a caretaker. Scholars seem to think Phoebe was a widow of some personal wealth. She could have been helping the believers in Cenchreae financially to provide for physical needs; perhaps she spoke up for those who had no voice; perhaps she simply stepped in wherever she saw a need and did what needed to be done as many of the women who followed Christ did. Regardless, in whatever capacity she served, Paul found her ministry valuable, necessary and far from inconsequential as it helped him continue or expand his own ministry.
So what can we learn from Phoebe’s example and how Paul viewed her contributions? As believers, we should watch out for one another whether we are welcoming those new to a city or helping in a material way through financial aid, standing in solidarity or providing for a physical need. The fact that Phoebe was a Greek gentile made no difference to Paul; he called her “our sister” focusing instead on their common adoption in Christ which reinforces Paul’s later writing that all are equal in Christ.
We should not be ashamed that our contributions are less than that of another. Paul was the missionary, but he found Phoebe’s help worth commending and, one might assume, central to his ministry in that city and beyond. Phoebe also took on personal risk carrying Paul’s letter, especially to a city where she was not known. Do we take on any personal risk to help another believer?
Sometimes these small references to lesser-known people are easy to gloss over. Several are mentioned in Romans 16, and there is much to learn even from the little information Paul gives us about them.
This month as you pray for women in ministry, consider women like Phoebe who are ministering where God has planted them. They are providing as they are able; they are speaking up for those who don’t have a voice and standing in solidarity with their fellow believers even in places, like a busy Greek port city, where being a Christian is not an easy thing to live out publicly. They are taking personal risks to help others, and every small act they do in Christ’s name encourages and gives strength both to those they serve and those watching them from the sidelines. Pray that they are open and obedient to God’s call on their lives. And prayerfully consider where the Lord may be asking you to serve.