NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SIXTEEN (Lesson II)
It is a great surprise that churches during my lifetime took so long to recognize the value of women in ministry. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, most were Sunday school teachers and Women’s Auxiliary Leaders. In fact, to this day, in some Protestant and Pentecostal churches, women are still denied being ordained as bishops. If a woman can run for mayor, governor, and even president, why can we not take a cue from Phœbe and promote them according to their talents and gifts, not their gender?
Paul also emphasizes that Phœbe should be welcomed in Rome as a servant of the Lord, something that genuine saints of God would recognize. As far as Paul was concerned, it would prove unbecoming of the Roman church not to show a servant of Christ the honor and respect they deserve. Calvin believes it would be to our advantage to embrace in love all the members of Christ’s body. In fact, we ought to respect and especially to love and honor those who perform an outreach ministry to the community. And besides, since Phœbe was always known for being full of kindness to all, Paul feels that help and assistance should now be given to her for all her concerns. Real courtesy requires that those who are naturally gifted in being kind to others should not be forsaken when they are in need of aid. Then to top it off, Paul emphasizes the fact that he is among those whom she assisted.1
John Locke makes note of how the KJV translates into English the Greek feminine noun prostatis as “succourer.” This is the only place in the Final Covenant where the word is used. Locke feels that in order for us to understand the role of Phœbe in our churches today, we might use the term “hostess,” which denotes someone whose house is where traveling evangelists stay during their visit. The church supplies the items for their food and bedding. In more modern times, this is often the role of the Pastor’s wife, since the evangelist usually stays in the parsonage most of the time. However, Locke points out that we must keep in mind that earlier in verse one he not only called her “sister,” but also “servant of the church.”2
John Bengel makes the observation that Phœbe obviously maintained her Gentile name. In ancient Greek religion, Phœbe was the grandmother of Apollo and Artemis. She was considered the Titaness of the intellectuals. In any case, from what we are told, Phœbe certainly epitomized that name. Bengel remarks, that there was an obvious, all-embracing relationship among believers in Paul’s day. Phœbe is recommended to the Romans for acts of kindness, which she did far from Rome. Bengel believes that Phœbe was financially well-off but did not shrink from the duty of ministering to strangers and the needy. Furthermore, it did not bother her, as far as her fellow citizens who seemed to be wrapped up in their own interests were concerned, what they thought of her as a wasteful spender by throwing her money away on the poor. Bengel cautions that believers should return a favor not only to those who are of service to them but also to those who offered their service to others.3
Adam Clarke repeats many of the things already mentioned by other scholars about Phœbe. But he does enlarge our understanding of the type of ministry she was involved in. According to his research, there were deaconesses in the primitive Church whose business it was to instruct female converts and candidates for baptism; attend the female converts at baptism; teach catechism; visit the sick, and those who were in prison. In short, perform those religious services to the female part of the Church which could not with propriety be performed by men. They were chosen in general out of the most experienced of the membership and were ordinarily widows who already raised their children. Some ancient constitutions required them to be forty, others fifty, and others sixty years of age.
It is evident that they were ordained to their office with the laying on of hands by the pastor and elders,4 and the form of prayer used on the occasion is extant in the apostolic constitutions.5 In the Roman Church, the order became extinct by the end of the fifth century but continued in the Greek Orthodox Church till the end of the twelfth century.6 However, during the Medieval era, in the late tenth or early eleventh century, women leaders began to emerge in the Roman Catholic Church. Most notable were Clare of Assisi, Catherine of Sierra, Joan of Arc, and Teresa of Avila. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is the most recent such individual reaching out to help the poor and sick. Protestant churches never established such nunneries or convents.
Robert Haldane speaks of Paul’s introduction of Phœbe to the believers in Rome and that it was common in those days that letters of recommendation were unnecessary for those who claimed to be called of the Lord for ministry, but who were officially well-known by churches leaders. Paul disclaims the necessity of such letters for himself to the church at Corinth, although in his first visit to the Jerusalem church he needed the introduction of Barnabas. There might be doubts in Rome respecting Phœbe, as there were doubts at Jerusalem with respect to Paul, and these could not be removed by one’s profession or merely claiming to hold office in the church, unsupported by sufficient evidence whether of her faith or of Paul’s Apostleship. But with Priscilla and Aquila being in Rome, Paul didn’t think there was much to worry about.7
Charles Hodge also mentions that early Christians retained their names that were derived from false gods because in their minds those names lost all religious significance. He notes that up to this day we still retain the names of the days of the week without ever thinking of their pagan derivation. The city of Corinth, being situated on a narrow isthmus, maintained two ports, one facing Europe, and the other facing Asia. The latter was called Cenchreae, where a church was organized, in which Phœbe served as a deaconess. Many ecclesiastical writers suppose there were two classes of these female officers: the one, presbytes, – corresponding in some measure to the duties of male elders, and the other whose duty it was to attend to the sick and the poor.8 While many of these positions in the early church were in large part based on the manners and customs of that era, they do speak to the concern and care that Christians held dear for one another. It might be considered old fashion, says Hodge, but such ministries are in dire need in today’s churches.
On the role of the deaconess in the early church, Albert Barnes notes this being a reference to a class of females in the church whose duty it was to teach other females and to take the general superintendency of that part of the church, and their existence is expressly affirmed in early ecclesiastical history. They appear to have been of advanced age and experienced widows with stellar reputations, not just because they were of advanced age but that they were well advanced in their Christian life and well-suited to guide and instruct those who were young and inexperienced.9
Barnes also makes reference to an “Apostolic Constitution.” We find the first one composed by the church in 1570 under Pope Pius V. There we read what was said about widows: “The widows, therefore, ought to be serious, obedient to their bishops, and their presbyters, and their deacons, and besides these to the deaconesses, with piety, reverence, and fear; not usurping authority, nor desiring to do anything beyond the constitution without the consent of the deacon.”10 In that same portion, we read: “We do not permit presbyters to ordain deacons, or deaconesses, or readers, or ministers, or singers, or porters, but only bishops; for this is the ecclesiastical order and harmony.”11
Then we find a section where it talks about deaconesses being involved in the distribution of charity.12 Then there is a whole section on deacons and deaconesses. There it says: “Ordain also a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministrations towards women. For sometimes he cannot send a deacon, who is a man, to the women, on account of unbelievers. You shall, therefore, send a woman, a deaconess, on account of the imaginations of the bad. For we stand in need of a woman, a deaconess, for many necessities; and first in the baptism of women, the deacon will only anoint their forehead with the holy oil, and after him, the deaconess will anoint them.”13 There is no reason to believe that this was initiated by this Apostolic Constitution but simply ratified as part of church ministration based on what was started by the Apostle Paul.
Jewish scholar David Stern points out that in an age where feminism is an issue, it should be noted not only that this woman held a prominent office in the Cenchrean congregation, but that in Thayer’s Lexicon he lists the Greek diakonos as a masculine/feminine noun. In other words, Phœbe was a deacon, not a deaconess (as some English versions render the word). However, in writing to Timothy Paul gives the qualifications of a diakonos,14 and seems to have the male deacons in mind.15 Nevertheless, this certainly goes along with what Paul wrote the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”16
1 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 John Locke: On Romans, op. cit., loc., cit., p. 382
3 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 364
4 1 Timothy 4:14
5 See Ephesians 1:17-19; 3:16-19; Philippians 1:9-11; Colossians 1:9-11
6 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 291
7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 633
8 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 692
9 Cf. 1 Timothy 5:3, 9-11; Titus 2:4
10 Apostolic Constitution: Bk. III, Sec. 1, Ch. 7
11 Ibid. Bk. III, Sec. 1, Ch. 11
12 Ibid. Bk. III, Sec. 1, Ch. 14
13 Ibid. Bk. III, Sec. 2, Ch. 15
14 1 Timothy 3:8-13
15 David J. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Galatians 3:28