Matthew 10:29-31 Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows.
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Romans 16:1-2 I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: That you receive her in the Lord, as becomes saints, and that you assist her in whatever business she has need of you: for she has been a helper of many, and of myself also.
Romans 16:27 To God only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen. Written to the Romans from Corinth, and sent by Phoebe servant of the church at Cenchrea.
“I Commend to You”
The epistle to the Romans was sent by the hand of Phoebe, a servant in the church at Cenchrea. She was unknown to the believers in Rome, and thus Paul opens the letter with a commendation of her, inviting the Romans to welcome her as one of their own, and as a friend and co-laborer of Paul. Perhaps she is unknown to you as well. If so, then I commend to you Phoebe, our sister. Let us find out more about this little lady.
Paul refers to Phoebe as a “sister.” This is not a blood relationship, but a spiritual one, as those of us who have placed our faith in Christ can testify. I have had the privilege of visiting many churches both across the country and in other parts of the world, and the one thing I find—no matter what the culture—is that I always feel at home. The music may vary, the preaching style may vary, the order of services may vary, but the fellowship remains the same. And very often the connection between other believers is closer than my connection with kin. Why? Because our common bond is Christ Jesus. We are joint-heirs with Jesus and children of the heavenly Father. That makes us brothers and sisters.
While the term deaconess does not appear in our English translation, the Greek behind the word servant used here, διακονος, means “deaconness,” literally, “an attendant; a waiter/waitress (at tables and other menial duties); one who runs errands.” A deaconess might also teach in the church, though she would teach only women.
It is clear from the New Testament that there were women in the church known as deaconesses. Reference is made to women whose duty it was to teach other women (Titus 2:3-5). Generally they were aged and experienced widows, of a good reputation, and qualified to guide and instruct the young and inexperienced (1 Tim. 5:9-10).
Evidence of the role of deaconess is also supported in church history. The Apostolical Constitutions, Book iii., say, “Ordain a deaconess who is faithful and holy, for the ministries toward the women.” Pliny, in his celebrated letter to Trajan, when speaking of the efforts which he made to obtain information respecting the opinions and practices of Christians, says: “I deemed it necessary to put two maid-servants who are called ministrae [deaconesses] to the torture, in order to ascertain what is the truth” (Albert Barnes’s Notes on the Bible, SwordSearcher, 2012).
Why were there deaconesses in the church?
The women were secluded from the men, for the most part, and not permitted to mingle in society with men, as is the custom now. It became necessary, therefore, to appoint aged and experienced women to instruct the young women, visit the sick, provide for them, and perform for them the services which male deacons could not properly do. It is evident, however, that they were confined to these offices, and that they were never regarded as an order of ministers or allowed to preach to congregations (1 Tim. 2:12; 1 Cor. 14:34).
Understanding somewhat more of the position of deaconess in the early church, we may conclude that Phoebe was an older woman, and likely also a widow and mother.
Why were the qualifications for deaconess so exclusive?
To be a deaconess, a woman had to be at least sixty years old, a widow, and a mother. Why? Well, would you want to sit under the teaching of someone who had little to no experience? Who better to teach women how to love their husbands and keep house than a woman who has done so for many years? Who better to teach young mothers how to care for their children than an older woman who has been down that road? No one likes to hear advice from a person who has not already walked in those shoes. Experience is the obvious reason to choose women of such qualifications.
But there is also the matter of age. Younger women were rejected from being deaconesses, even younger widows. It was not enough to be a widow and mother, but they must also be of an advanced age. Why? Let’s face it. Young mothers have responsibilities inside the home, namely, to raise their own children.
Paul had an even greater concern, as expressed to Timothy (1 Tim. 5:11-15), that the young widows would become busybodies and create dissension in the church. Unfortunately I’ve had experience here, when I sought counsel from a respected woman in the church (though not old by any means), and later found out that she had gossiped about me. Ouch! Elderly women gossip too, but they are much less likely to do so, I think perhaps because they have been on the receiving end of loose tongues, so they know the pain. (Short-term memory loss helps one keep secrets too!)
It was also likely the young widows would fall in love again and remarry. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, Paul encourages the young widows to remarry. But marriage, with or without children, comes with responsibilities of its own, so that in addition to the fact that the wife is still building up that store of experience, she is also too busy to be a full-time teacher.
Corinth was situated on the middle of the isthmus connecting Achaea and Macedonia in Greece. The city had two harbors, or ports: Cenchrea on the east, and Lechaeum on the west. Cenchrea opened into the Aegean Sea and was the principal port. The 6-mile-wide isthmus between the two ports was the site where the Isthmian games were played, to which the apostle Paul refers so often in his epistles.
Priscilla and Aquila, who accompanied the apostle Paul on one of his missionary journeys, were also from this region. At the time of this writing, the couple was living in Rome. In fact, from the greeting Paul sends to them (Rom. 16:3-5), we may ascertain that the church at Rome was meeting in their house. It is unknown whether or not Priscilla and Aquila knew Phoebe personally, although they may well have met while they lived in Corinth.
What Does Phoebe Have to Do with Me?
The strict requirement for a deaconess was a matter of practicality. I believe the older widows, whose children had grown and gone, and who had no prospects of marriage, needed to be needed. These high qualifications established them as having value to the community. This is so different from the way we tend to look at the elderly in our day and age. All too often we put them in nursing homes and forget about them. And when they do offer advice, we say, “What do you know about anything, old-timer? Things were different for you. You wouldn’t understand the way things are now.” How disrespectful! How sad! Our elderly men and women have so much to contribute. Let’s open our ears and listen to what they have to say. But I’m on a soapbox now. Allow me to step down and conclude our study of Phoebe.
As a woman, do you desire to be used of God in your church and community? Are you a woman of advanced age such as Phoebe, and you also feel a need to be needed? Whether or not your church exercises the role of deaconess, I’m sure there are various positions in the ministry that can easily be fulfilled by willing and qualified women. Look for ways you can help. Find out what ministries are in need in your church that would be a good fit for you.
Do you still get around well? You could visit women in hospitals, nursing homes, and private homes who are not so free to come and go.
Do you enjoy cooking? You could provide a meal for a woman who just had a baby or is recovering from an injury or illness.
Do you love children? Perhaps there’s a Sunday school class in need of a teacher. Or there may be a young mother in need of some “me-time” or a date night with her husband who would appreciate a free—and trustworthy—babysitter.
Have you noticed the tragic increase in divorces—even among Christians? Maybe it’s time for you to start a Bible study for younger wives to teach them how to love and respect their husbands and thus avoid becoming a statistic.
Do you live in a college community? You could reach out to the college students who may be feeling a bit homesick and offer them one-on-one support in a myriad of different ways. Some colleges and universities have a “Campus Parent” program for this very purpose. And your spare room could become a free “motel” for visiting parents, to help offset a little the already-quite-expensive task of putting a child through college.
Are you home-bound yourself? Then you can write letters and pray. I don’t save this for last because it’s the least of all, but because it’s the greatest of all. Those children, college students, young wives and mothers, and even middle-aged and senior women all need your prayers. Keep a prayer list, send notes to encourage them with the assurance of your prayers, and ask for updates so you can see God at work in their lives. A woman in the church I attended in Virginia had a stroke that left her with a serious speech impediment. She began to give hand-made birthday and anniversary cards to everyone in the church, with a little gift to boot. She did this faithfully for many, many years. But please allow me to get on my soapbox again. For all the thousands of cards she made by hand and gave to friend and stranger alike, she received precious few thank-you notes. Ladies, be one who writes thank-you notes. (I’m preaching to myself here as well.) It doesn’t take that much time, and it is a tremendous encouragement to the one who reached out to bless you. Not only that, but it’s a socially-acceptable way to give back. ☺ Even the person who “has everything” has room for a thank-you note!
Whether a learner or a teacher, at whatever stage in life you may be today, you are important to God and your community. So reach out. Younger women reach out to the older women for help and advice. Older women, don’t be a hoarder of all the experience God has given you. Experience is a gift. Re-gift it to those around you. Be like Phoebe—be available to do whatever needs to be done, no matter how big or small. God isn’t looking for talent. The only ability you need to serve Him is availability.
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Next week: Lois & Eunice
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