Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What About Phoebe?

“Do you think that women can be elders?” she asked.

This younger woman was searching for answers that will have a direct impact on her role, her ministry, her identity, her life. Like me, she wants to live for the glory of God, embracing all that he calls her to do and rejecting anything that is not of him. As she and others try to navigate their mission, they ping questions like this out into the ocean of the body of Christ and anxiously await a response.

“Do you think that women can be elders?”

I want to give her an honest answer, but I honestly don’t know what I think.

I know what the Bible says about elder qualifications, but I also know wholehearted believers who interpret those verses differently. People that have done much more study than I, people who know Greek and understand the significance of context and the implications of authorship, have come to opposing conclusions on the matter. And so the debate continues, each side certain that their own understanding is the Truth with a capital T.

I wish I could be so sure.

A few years ago, I was asked to preach on the role of women in the church as described by Paul’s greetings and encouragements at the end of his letter to the Romans. It was ironic, really, because at the time I was questioning whether or not I (a woman) should preach at all. But my pastor and my husband both believed that preparing such a sermon would help me understand my own ministry better, so I agreed to do it—in submission to them, of course!

All my life I had just breezed through the final chapter of Romans, thinking it to be a bunch of salutations that had no meaning or implications. But I learned a lot as I worked on that message, things that surprised and challenged me. There are three significant women mentioned by name in Romans 16, each with distinct roles and ministries and each revealing some important things about Paul’s view of women.

First, there’s Phoebe:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

Phoebe appears to be a single woman, and the fact that Paul commends her to the Romans and instructs them to receive her in the Lord leads many scholars to believe that she delivered this letter from Paul to the church in Rome. He identifies her as a “deacon,” though many translations employ the word “servant” in these verses. The word that was used in Greek, diakonon, literally means “one who serves;” however, it is the exact same word that is translated as deacon in most other passages, including I Timothy 3. In scripture diakonon generally refers to an office in the local church.

Deacons in the early church were appointed and they were responsible for most operational ministries. The deacons did their work so that elders and pastors could dedicate themselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word. Such roles were modeled from the earliest days of the church, beginning with the apostles in Acts chapter 6.

So the first thing I learned in preparing my sermon was that Paul was a proponent of women deacons. While many churches use Paul’s letter to Timothy (I Timothy 3:8 to be exact) as proof that Paul did not appoint women to be deacons, Phoebe is evidence to the contrary. If I want to rightly interpret scripture, I must consider individual passages in light of the whole, that is to say, we interpret scripture through scripture. If someone says that in I Timothy 3:8 Paul strictly forbids women deacons, I have to ask myself, “What about Phoebe?”

I realize at this point that I still cannot answer my friend's question about elders. But I'm going to keep pinging. 

Tune in next week to read what I learned about Priscilla. 

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