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Was Phoebe an ordained deacon?

by Stephen Davey

Thomas from Virginia asked: Was Phoebe an ordained deacon?


First, for the sake of clarity, let’s define biblically what we mean by deacon. Deacons are not part of the group involved in ruling or leading the church. This is contrary to many church structures from the past hundred years. There are many churches with one pastor/elder and a deacon board acting like a board of trustees. That’s not the model we see in Scripture. 

Deacons in the New testament were involved with the “boots on the ground” care of the congregation. They made sure that the needs of the people were met. They were servants. This is evident from the creation of the office of deacon in Acts 6.

Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. “Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them (Acts 6:1-6).

From its inception, the office of deacon has been one of service, not authority.

Many scholars believe that Phoebe was considered a deaconess in the church. But its important to know that even if that were true, it would not violate the biblical command that the church be led by men.

But Thomas, the word deacon is used too broadly in the Bible for us to say with certainty that Phoebe had the office of deacon. The Bible uses the Greek word diakonos or deacon to describe Phoebe in Romans 16:1. It’s also the same word used for the office of deacon, particularly in I Timothy 3.

Deacons likewise must be men of dignity, not double-tongued, or addicted to much wine or fond of sordid gain, but holding to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach (I Timothy 3:8-10).

However, this word is also used to describe servants in general. Let me give you a couple examples. 

When Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water into wine at a wedding, we read this:

John 2:3–5 [3] When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” [4] And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” [5] His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (ESV).

The word “servants” is the same Greek word—diakonos or deacon. 

In another example, Paul used the word to describe political rulers being subject to God’s authority.

Romans 13:4 [4] for he (the ruler) is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (ESV).

Again, the word “servant” is the same word diakonos or deacon.

So Thomas, while Phoebe is described as a deacon, the term used is too broad to definitively say she held the office of deaconess in the church. Most likely, she is one with a reputation for faithful service and hospitality in the church.

Thanks for your question,


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Ruben says:
If I may, I would like to share an article about female leadership, in the context of the local church, namely about Phoebe: (The article is in portuguese, but you may activate the automatic translation at the right top menu.)