The Phoebe ProblemJacob Prahlow 2022-02-16
Messages. They’re all around us.
In our technology- and logistics-saturated world, we’re constantly overwhelmed with messages. Every day, I get messages via email, text, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and TikTok. Then I go to work, where I field a few phone calls, go get the mail, and open the door for the UPS, FedEx, and Amazon drivers whom we see enough to know by name. And this is our world. We’re constantly receiving messages.
In everyday life, we’re mostly interested in the message itself: what is someone trying to communicate with me? What arrived in the mail? Where is my latest Amazon order? But sometimes, a message can be almost secondary. Yes, we got an actual letter, but it’s the thoughtfulness of our friend that really means the most. Or think of those heartrending clips of a student who is stunned to learn that their recently returned soldier parent is the one they’re interacting with.
The messages we receive matter, of course. But sometimes, the messenger is important too. I’d like to propose keeping this paradigm in mind as we look at two short verses in the book of Romans. The message of those verses matters, yes—they’re Scripture and they’re important. But these verses are also important because of what they tell us about their messenger: a woman named Phoebe.
Talking about Women in the Church
Now, if you’ve spent any length of time in the Church, you already know that conversations about women in the Church are often filled with disagreements and arguments and conversations about all kinds of secondary or tertiary issues. I’ve been called out at conferences for talking about women in early Christianity, I’ve seen small groups disintegrate because of differing perspectives on women leading, and I know women and men who’ve left churches hurt and wounded by things that have been said about women in those churches. Heck, I even had the validity of my education called into question because I had a female professor. And that’s just my extremely limited experience as a man!
Talking about women in the Church can be contentious. So permit me to make one simple request of you, dear reader: pay attention to what Scripture actually says. Not what you’ve heard someone say about the Bible before. Not the worldview that you inhabit or the tradition that you were raised with (or the tradition you rejected). Don’t get hung up on words or concepts that aren’t how you’d say it – listen to what Scripture actually says about the lives and teachings of women. That’s because, throughout the Scriptures, women speak and women act in often important ways.
The Phoebe Problem
With all that in mind, let’s turn to Phoebe, who only appears in Romans 16:1-2: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon 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.
From such verses, endless controversies have emerged. Let’s break down what Paul is communicating here. In the first place, Phoebe is called sister, an indication that she’s a follower of Jesus, part of the family of the Church. That part is pretty clear.
What has historically been less clear is the role that Phoebe played in her church. We’re rendering this deacon at the church in Cenchreae, but if you look at different translations of the Bible it may say deaconess or servant or leader or in ministry at. Because the issue is what kind of leadership role did Phoebe play?
I neither want to bore you with the details of this conversation nor get lost in the weeds here, but the construction of what Paul is saying here pretty clearly indicates that Phoebe had a specific role in her church. Now, this was probably not the clearly defined church office that we see later in Christianity or what you have at your local church, where if you designate deacons, there’s probably a process for them to follow. But today, most pastors and scholars who look at Romans 16:1 recognize that Phoebe served as some kind of deacon in her church.
One other contentious part of this passage is what Paul means in verse two when he called Phoebe a patron of many. Debates continue on what precisely this would have meant, with some scholars arguing that this indicates financial support while others argue that it indicates financial support and leadership.
This ongoing conversation is worth paying attention to; but really, it pales in comparison to what Paul says Phoebe is going to do.
The whole point of these two verses is Paul’s commendation of Phoebe as his letter bearer. That is, the whole reason these two verses exist is to introduce Phoebe to the church at Rome because she is the one taking Paul’s letter from Corinth (where he was writing) to Rome. No serious scholar debates this point: Phoebe took Paul’s letter to the Romans to the church at Rome. And herein lays some tremendously important context.
Sending Messages in the Ancient World
In the ancient world, there was nothing even remotely approximating the systems of messengers and messages that we take for granted today. There was no Post Office, there was no FedEx. There was certainly nothing as convenient as email or texting. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you had three basic options:
First, to walk over to them and tell them what you wanted to tell them. Simple and convenient, but not great if you’re busy or need to be somewhere else.
Your second option would be to send a messenger to relay your information. If you’re familiar with the story of The City of Ember, this is what we see there: you hire someone to take a short message to someone else. This is more convenient than option one, but costs money and really only works for short messages.
Which leads to our third option: write a letter, and then send that letter with someone you trust in order to deliver the message for you.
Now, letter writing was itself expensive in the ancient world. You couldn’t just run to Staples and pick up a pen and paper. Additionally, you had to have someone who could read the letter—not always easy when literacy rates were probably around 10%. And then you also had to find someone wealthy enough to travel—again, not always easy when most people were poor and had little time for leisure. But if you needed to send a long message over a significant distance, letter writing was the best way to go.
Now, once you wrote a letter, typically you would explain its contents to your messenger. Traveling was dangerous in the ancient world, so if part of the message was damaged or lost or castaway on an island for a time, you wanted the messenger to be able to relay what information they could. In fact, there’s evidence that in certain situations, a letter bearer would have been part of the process of composition so they could truly understand the message as written. Then, once the messenger set out and arrived at wherever they were going, they would deliver the message.
This would not look like how we deliver messages today: “hey buddy, here you go.” Rather, like Chaucer in A Knight’s Tale, the letter bearer would act as a herald. In short, the letter bearer would read the letter aloud to its recipients, particularly if those recipients could maybe not read themselves. Then, if the recipients had any questions about the message, the letter bearer would help them understand what was being said. That is the context for letter bearing in the ancient world.
All of this means that the first person to communicate the contents of the book of Romans (which, if you don’t know, is widely viewed as one of the most important writings in the whole Bible) was Phoebe. Furthermore, the first person to provide any sort of explanation about what Romans said and meant was Phoebe.
In fact, so far as we can tell, the practice of what we’re doing right now—Christians coming together on Sunday mornings to worship together and hear preaching and teaching—comes from the very practice of reading aloud Scripture and then someone explaining what it means. Preaching, teaching, sermons—whatever you want to call them—originate with the ancient practice of letter bearing.
In other words, what Paul is telling us in Romans 16:1-2 is that the first person to preach on the book of Romans was Phoebe. Phoebe would have taken Paul’s letter to the various house churches in Rome, she would have read the letter, then she would have answered any questions that those hearing would have asked. In short, Phoebe was the first person to read and teach on Romans.
Why does all this matter?
Because Christianity has a long and complicated history when it comes to the roles of women in the church. We’ve already seen some of this with the debates about Phoebe’s roles as deacon and patron. The meaning of Romans 16 only gets debated because something is at stake: the roles of women in the Church.
Now, there are numerous perspectives on how and why this is. If you’re reading an article on this website, you’ve almost certainly heard of the complementarian and egalitarian debate or the ongoing conversations about patriarchy and mutuality in the Church.
A Different Approach
But I actually want to suggest a different approach when it comes to thinking about Phoebe. Because perhaps the most helpful framework that I’ve encountered on why Romans 16 is so contentious in the Church comes from Scot McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet. As McKnight frames it, there are basically two strands of biblical interpretation when it comes to women in the Church:
First are those who focus on what we can call the “Women Keep Silent” Passages. These statements, at least in isolation, seem to suggest that women should be quiet in church and should not hold positions of authority. Probably the two most famous are 1 Corinthians 14:34, which says, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.
And 1 Timothy 2:12, which says, I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. In light of these verses, those who focus on Women Keep Silent Passages argue that Scripture commands women to remain in positions of quiet submission, at least in the church. In practice, this means that women cannot preach or teach or lead in the church. Many churches take this approach, based largely on these passages.
The other major perspective that McKnight highlights are those who focus on What Women Do in Scripture. For those who take this perspective, it’s not enough to just consider a few isolated, difficult to interpret passages in the New Testament: we actually need to pay attention to what women say and do throughout Scripture. In other words, we can’t just wrest a couple statements by Paul out of context: we need to see what Scripture portrays as normative for women in a variety of contexts. To quote McKnight’s summary of this perspective:
“No matter how seriously you take the [Women Keep Silent Passages], it is profoundly unbiblical to let those passages overcome the [What Women Do passages] so that all we have left [are] silenced and caged blue parakeets! Whatever Paul meant by silence, he did not mean to say that the [What Women Do] passages are now obsolete.” (McKnight, 165)
If Scripture is meaningfully authoritative, we cannot just ignore the parts of it that don’t fit our predetermined theologies. Accordingly, it seems important to pay attention to what Scripture says about what women do, not just interpret large swaths of Scripture in light of a few contested verses.
And when it comes to Phoebe, pastor and scholar Michael Bird asks what I think is the pertinent question: “If Paul were opposed to women teaching men anytime and anywhere, why would he send a woman like Phoebe to deliver this vitally important letter [Romans] and to be his personal representative to Rome? Why not Timothy, Titus, or some other dude? Why Phoebe?” (Michael Bird, Bourgeois Babes, 21)
The point here is not that there are two incompatible messages in Scripture—only that there are two divergent ways to approach Scripture on this issue. And this is actually one of the major reasons I think we must give more consideration to the lives and teachings of Biblical women—because whether you like it or not, following Jesus invests you in some conversations, including this ongoing conversation about women in the Church.
Where Do We Go from Here?
I have two closing thoughts on where we can go from here.
First, when encountering Scripture, we must listen to what is being said. We cannot gloss over messages or avoid them because they’re uncomfortable. We need to listen to what is being said—and pay attention to what it means. It’s not enough to understand and interpret the way we’ve always read certain passages of Scripture. We need to pay attention to what God is saying—through Phoebe and through the rest of the Scriptures.
Second, let me encourage you to take some time to reflect on who has been a Phoebe in your life. Think of someone who has brought you encouragement, wisdom, or truth. We all have people who’ve brought us messages. And often, we focus on the message they bring us. But this week, let me encourage you to spend a moment thinking about a Phoebe in your life. And maybe reach out to them. Say thank you to them for what they’ve done for you and your faith.
Image courtesy of the Gospel Coalition.