This is the second in a series of articles about women in the scriptures. We do not know a great deal about Phoebe, but she is mentioned in one of Paul’s letters and was a significant figure in the early Church.
Phoebe lived in Cenchreae, a port town near the city of Corinth. Corinth was where St Paul was staying when he wrote the letter to the Romans.
In the Roman Empire, there was no postal service available for everyone. Paul used his co-workers to deliver his letters, to represent him and to interpret the letters. On this occasion, it was Phoebe who went to Rome with Paul’s letter.
In the ancient world, travellers had to stay with people they knew, or to rely on the hospitality of strangers. Therefore, Paul opens chapter 16 with the following words:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2 NRSV)
The word commend means recommend, present, or introduce. Paul intends that the community in Rome welcome Phoebe and treat her like their sister. To be a sister means to be part of a family. Paul wrote elsewhere that we are no longer strangers to each other but one family as children of God.
Paul also describes Phoebe as diakonos. This means servant, deacon, or minister. In more technical sense, diakonos refers to servant leaders within the Christian community. Servant leadership is a unique style of leadership where conventional power relationships are turned upside down by putting the focus on the needs and growth of others. Thus, Phoebe exercises leadership within the Christian community at Cenchreae. Elsewhere Paul applies the word to himself and to others who preach and teach in the early church.
Finally, Paul calls Phoebe prostatis, meaning patron, benefactor, protector or sponsor. Phoebe was likely wealthy and supported the Christian movement. Women of means were crucial to the ministry of the early church.
Typically, Paul avoided patronage language as a way of describing people and relationships. He usually opted to portray all believers equal with each other in relation to Christ as Lord. Phoebe must have provided extraordinary support and leadership for Paul to describe her as a prostatis to many.
How can Phoebe inspire us today?
She is sister to the Christian community; let’s be sisters and brothers to each other and practice hospitality, welcome and inclusion to all.
She is servant leader: let us all take up this particularly Christian style of leading in our various communities.
Phoebe is a generous patron; let us mentor and support the Christian community in any way that we can.