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Phoebe: Deacon and Benefactor
Paul commends another woman in Romans 16 who was a leader in Cenchreae, a port city near Corinth. “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a minister of the Church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the holy ones, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a benefactor to many and to me as well” (1-2).
The word minister (or servant) in modern translations is the Greek word diakonos (deacon). Phoebe is the only woman specifically named a deacon in the New Testament. In the days of Paul’s ministry the role of the deacon was evolving. It involved an official function of some kind, most likely a pastoral one. As the Church developed, the position of deacon was more specifically described. Fifty to 70 years later, 1 Timothy 3:8-13 outlines the requirements and obligations of the deacon.
In the present context, Paul’s reference to Phoebe is in the form of a letter of recommendation so that she will be welcomed with hospitality when she reaches the Christian community in Rome. By implication, Phoebe’s ministry includes travel to other places. Paul’s description of her, then, is significant. He recognizes her as a sister in the faith, a deacon or minister whose service is trustworthy, and finally as a “benefactor to many.”
This Greek word can also be translated “helper, protector or patron.” Paul notes that she was also a benefactor or patron to him personally, someone who helped him to spread the gospel.
Barbara Leonhard, O.S.F., a Sister of St. Francis, Oldenburg, Indiana, is a student of Scripture, with a master’s in biblical studies and a Ph.D. in Christian spirituality. She now teaches and guides lay ministers and spiritual directors.
This is from St. Anthony Messenger