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Phoebe: Deacon and Sister in the Early Church

Phoebe gets a lot of attention in discussions about New Testament gender roles. As the woman tasked with delivering Paul’s letter to the Roman church, the discussion often revolves around Paul’s recommendation of Phoebe as a deacon, but perhaps we haven’t paid enough attention to her role as a “sister.”

In Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Aimee Byrd takes a look at this critical descriptor. The following post is an abridgment of chapter 8, “When Paul Passes Phoebe the Baton.”

“Our sister Phoebe”

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae” (Rom. 16:1 NIV).

I’d like to consider what it meant for Paul to commend Phoebe and to call her their sister. Commending Phoebe to the Romans implies that she has a task that needs some outside authorization. It’s interesting, as we see Paul commending Phoebe to them as his authorized deliverer of the letter, to observe how he uses that same word translated commend in 2 Corinthians 3:1–3. Here he tells the Corinthian church that they are Christ’s letter, delivered by Paul and the apostles, that commends them for their ministry. In other words, the faith of the Corinthians was Paul’s commendation letter from Christ, Paul’s authorization as an apostle to continue to minister to them. This same word is used to commend Phoebe to the Romans.

Have you ever commended anyone for a mission? My house has reached that age when the original appliances are beginning to break down. Our microwave was the first to go. After doing a ridiculous amount of research to find the best microwave for our price range, we discovered that it was a bit shorter than our last model and our backsplash tile came about a half inch short of meeting it. My husband, son, and I went to Lowe’s and had some tile cut to fill in that space of exposed drywall. It took forever to get someone to cut it, so we ended up shopping for some more home improvement needs while we were waiting. Forever. My son was just standing around when Matt had the blessed opportunity to check out, so he put my son to work, telling him to grab some bags to take to the car. Finally, we were leaving, and we could get back to fixing our kitchen—or so I thought. My son dropped the flimsy plastic bag holding the perfectly cut tiles, and they broke into pieces once they hit the parking lot pavement.

This is the part where my husband and I both paused and processed whether we were going to act on how we really felt inside. I’m sure none of you parents have ever felt like unloading. But I did. There was no way we were going back in the store on that day—we were done. I took a breath and, as even-toned as I could, asked, “What happened? How did you drop the bag?” (Perhaps a bit of an exclamation mark should be added after the question mark. Maybe half.) My son replied, “Guys, I’m thirteen. Why did you give me the bag with the tile?” Now, a thirteen-year-old should be perfectly capable of carefully carrying a bag. But he also had a point. If we cared so dang much about how it was handled, was he really the best choice? I may commend to you some thirteen-year-olds to handle something fragile that you may need delivered, but not my son. At this stage in life, he didn’t take the best care of things.

I’ve already discussed the fragility of the situation in which Phoebe is delivering this epistle. This is a group of house churches made up of Jews and Gentiles in an influential area that was not directly established by one of the twelve apostles. Paul cannot go to Rome himself to address the issues they are questioning or are divided on. He has the delicate task of trying to garner their support for his own apostolic missionary work, as well as uniting weaker and stronger siblings in the faith under a robust teaching of God and salvation.

I wonder how long it took Paul to complete this epistle.² I wonder if when Paul finished, he thought to himself that the Holy Spirit had breathed out through him a masterpiece that theologians would be in awe of to this day. His heart must have been filled with gratitude, at the least, that the Lord would give him this profound and glorious teaching to share. I once heard Romans described as the diamond on the ring of the band that is the canon of Scripture. I imagine how Paul must have prayed over its reception by the Romans. No doubt, selecting the deliverer to get it there to communicate (make common) and commune (share, hold in common) with these churches was a big deal.

Think about all that is behind this commendation! Paul passes the baton to Phoebe. Donald Grey Barnhouse writes, “Never was there a greater burden carried by such tender hands. The theological history of the church through the centuries was in the manuscript which she brought with her. The Reformation was in that baggage. The blessing of multitudes in our day was carried in those parchments.”³

Paul authorizes a woman to communicate and make common “his greatest letter-essay, the most influential letter in the history of Western thought, and the singularly greatest piece of Christian theology”⁴ with God’s people. James Montgomery Boice notes that Phoebe likely had traveling companions, as it was unsafe for women, or anyone for that matter, to travel alone in the conditions of the ancient world.⁵ But Paul makes sure Phoebe is known as the prominent one bearing the epistle on his behalf. It wasn’t just because it needed to be delivered from point A to point B (like our kitchen tiles).

Sacred siblingship⁶

The first thing Paul says about Phoebe in commending her to the Roman churches is that she is their sister. We can easily overlook the significance of this status, as we often use this expression as a casual term of endearment. But there is both an affection and a theology behind Paul introducing Phoebe as not only his sister but theirs in common.⁷

And this isn’t a status that Paul reserves just for his favored co-laborers or leaders. Reidar Aasgaard, professor of intellectual history at the University of Oslo, wrote extensively on the meaning of Christian siblingship in Paul’s writing, noting that this is his most frequent way of describing the church. Aasgaard studied the epistles to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon to discover that Paul used the Greek root for siblings 122 times, and only 2 of those instances refer to biological siblings. Comparatively, Paul describes his fellow Christians as “church” 45 times, “holy” 25 times, “called” 5 times, and “body of Christ” 3 to 4 times.⁸ In communicating this way, Paul “says something about Christian relationships, what they are like, and what they should be like: in fact, he here appears to disclose elements of his ecclesiological and ethical thinking.”⁹

Siblingship in the ancient world

Aasgaard explains how Paul is drawing on the notions his hearers have regarding siblingship, one of the most powerful ancient social institutions in antiquity, to teach Christians about how their affection toward one another should be oriented, and what rights and obligations they have as siblings. It’s an influential term “to appeal to them, criticize them, strengthen them, or make them change.”¹⁰ Paul is introducing some novel kinship applications for Christians as he draws from the Jewish, Hellenistic, and Roman cultural concepts to which the church in that context could relate.¹¹

The average household size in ancient times was smaller than you might expect. Women had a life expectancy of only sixty years old if they weren’t among the many who died giving birth. Men weren’t expected to live past forty-five. Thus it was common for children to grow up without both parents. “Only about 20 percent were born with a (paternal) grandfather.”¹²

Child mortality rates were also high. “On average, every female had to bear five children for two of them to reach adulthood, and thus be able to marry and secure succession.”¹³ By ten years old, one typically had about two siblings, and by thirty-five, the demographic dropped to around one and a half. Given these statistics, you can imagine how meaningful siblings were to one another and how much they depended on one another.

The household responsibilities were enormous for the mission of the family name, including the family faith, and the household was the center of economic production, education, religious and judicial functions, social security, emotional support, and social contact.¹⁴ “While deaths changed the head of the household and shook up the siblings’ responsibilities, the relationships between surviving siblings were an anchor to their family history and identity. . . . By using the metaphor of natural siblings in ancient households, he draws on the common knowledge that Christians should honor one another in this valued relationship, promote unity, and live in harmony, which was ‘a fundamental condition for a successful family life.’”¹⁵

Joseph Hellerman picks up on this kinship language in Scripture as well, describing the early church as a “surrogate kinship group” which functioned in similar kinship norm behavior as Mediterranean families.¹⁶ “These ideals became more focused between the first century BC and the first century AD, as smaller households of immediate family members became prominent over the larger familia, in which extended family, freedmen, and slaves lived together. The smaller household model fostered more gender balance than the strictly patriarchal familia model. People traced their family lines through both the mother and the father, rather than exclusively through the men. This can be seen in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (see Matt. 1:3, 5–6).”¹⁷

Aasgaard speaks of sibling obligations as distinctive yet much more fluid than we would expect.¹⁸ Many in the church today tend to view relationships through either a lens of authority and submission or of full equality, but the mutuality in these relationships came with distinctive rights and obligations, even as the “sibling relationship seems to have involved more latitude than many, or most, other social relations.”¹⁹

Factors such as age, gender, skill, and birth order all contributed to authority and responsibility both in the household and public spheres. As far as the dynamic between the sexes, brothers were to respect their sisters, protect their honor, defend them, even take their side if they were in a marital dispute. Sisters had strong devotion to their brothers, valuing their relationships with their brothers even over their own husbands.²⁰

It was common for sisters to arbitrate when there were tensions between their brother and their father. Considering the obligations siblings had to one another in the household, the mortality rate, and the ways they must have depended on one another for stability, relationship, family unity, and harmony, it’s easy to imagine just how much they were valued. Siblingship is the longest-lasting relationship many had. Siblings were expected to have a “natural affection toward one another that bore fruit in their actions” and was “distinguished from all other loves throughout a lifetime.”²¹

This is just a small overview of the notions Paul is drawing from when he calls Christians brothers and sisters. Therefore, we really do zoom past significant context if we don’t allow this sibling title to inform our attitudes.²²

Our new status in Christ

He is not merely using siblingship as a metaphor for the church. This is our new reality, our new status in Christ, who is our Elder Brother.²³ And this new status has precedence even over biological siblings. Jesus presses this truth when he is interrupted from his teaching by someone saying, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you” (Matt. 12:47).

He doesn’t reply, Oh, this must be important; excuse me for a second. He doesn’t even reply, Okay, let them know I’ll talk to them when I’m done speaking to the crowds. No, quite shockingly he says, “‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ Stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 48–50). While we know Christ loved and cared for his biological family and Scripture exhorts us to do the same,²⁴ we see that

Christ now views those spiritually united to him as siblings in an even truer sense! “By faith, we are new creations with exclusive family ties to Christ. We have an unremitting advocate who is now seated at the right hand of the Father (see Ps. 110:1, 5; Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25).”²⁵

So, even as we see Paul commending Phoebe as a deacon and a prostasis, her highest honor and title is as our sister in Christ. Paul is saying that she is one of us. And that means that she too has rights and obligations as a sister. Repeating Cohick, “As a sister in the household of God, Phoebe would be expected to use her resources to better the lives of her brothers and sisters.”²⁶ Paul is commending a sister who is going to use her resources, the knowledge of Paul’s instruction as well as any means by which she may be able to assist through her social status, and he asks for the siblings in Rome to provide for Phoebe through their hospitality.

Do we commend sisters in the church this way now? Obviously, Paul has invested in Phoebe. There is reciprocity in the relationship. He was happy to be helped by her benefaction, but he also must have picked up on her theological vigor and poured into her, equipping her well to answer the questions the Roman church was sure to have regarding the epistle. In a day with Google and cell phone accessibility, we can easily miss the value of the deliverer. Paul wasn’t traveling to Rome yet, he couldn’t be reached via FaceTime, and these churches were not even established by him or Peter. There was no backup drive, just a painstakingly written thirteen-foot-long scroll. He sends Phoebe. With the letter to the Romans. Let that sink in! This is what a sister can do!

LEARN MORE: Watch the Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood series on MasterLectures.

  1. See pp. 148–51
  2. See E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), for all the factors to consider in the process, such as rough drafts, editing, dictation, funds, copies for retention and dispatch, cost, and travel
  3. Donald Grey Barnhouse, God’s Glory: Exposition of Bible Doctrines, Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vol. 10, Romans 14:13–16:27 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 124.
  4. Michael Bird, Bourgeois Babes, Bossy Wives, and Bobby Haircuts: A Case for Gender Equality in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 21.
  5. James Montgomery Boice, Romans, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 4:1913.
  6. I first saw this term used in Sue Edwards, Kelley Matthews, and Henry J. Rogers, Mixed

Ministry: Working Together as Brothers and Sisters in an Oversexed Society (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008).

  1. See Aimee Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends? Avoidance Is Not Purity (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2018), 11–127.
  2. Reidar Aasgaard, “My Beloved Brothers and Sisters!” Christian Siblingship in Paul (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 3.
  3. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 3
  4. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 5
  5. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 35.
  6. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 37; see also for above percentages referenced.
  7. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 38; see also for below percentages on sibling mortality. Aasgaard does note that Jewish families were thought to have more children, but there is no reliable documentation to attest to this.
  8. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 45–48.
  9. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 54.
  10. Joseph Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 21, noting the picture of this we have in Acts.
  11. Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 116, see also Aasgaard, Brothers and Sisters, 41, 60.
  12. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 63. This paragraph is a paraphrase of his findings on pp. 62–70.
  13. Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 70.
  14. Aasgaard quotes from Sophocles’s play Antigone as an example. When she risks her own life to ensure a proper burial for her brother, Antigone “exclaims: ‘If my husband had died, I could have another, and a child by another man, if I had lost the first, but with my mother and father in Hades below, I could never have another brother.’” Aasgaard, Christian Siblingship, 64–65, quoting Sophocles, Ant. 909–12.
  15. Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 118.
  16. Thanks to Dave Myers for adding this additional thought.
  17. See David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2016).
  18. See Ex. 20:12; Prov. 1:8–9; John 19:26–27; Eph. 6:1–4; 1 Tim. 5:8.
  19. Byrd, Why Can’t We Be Friends?, 120.
  20. Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 304.
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