As I was reading Dave Black’s blog this morning, I was encouraged by the way that he described his wife:
I like to tell people, “If you want to understand my wife, just read Romans 16:1-2.” Usually, people compare Becky and me to Priscilla and Aquila. We always travel to Ethiopia together. But on this trip she will be more like Phoebe. Note that Phoebe is described by two words: “diakonos” and “prostatis.” In the New Testament the noun diakonos is often translated “deacon,” not always a good choice in my opinion. The English word has a religious connotation lacking in its Greek counterpart. A diakonos is simply a person who serves other people. If you know Becky, she is a deacon par excellence. (I have written about this often.) The second word is even more emphatic. The Greek term prostatis is defined by Douglas Moo as “one who came to the aid of others, especially foreigners, by providing housing and financial aid and by representing their interests before the local authorities.” Moo thinks Phoebe was â€œa woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the service of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and supportâ€ (Romans, p. 916). Now, if you will combine Rom. 16:1-2 with Phil. 2:3-4, you will understand exactly why Becky is going back to Ethiopia.
Are you familiar with the passage in Romans that Dave referenced?
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. (Romans 16:1-2 ESV)
As Dave Black pointed out, the word translated “servant” above is the same word that is often translated “deacon”. In fact, sometimes within the same context the word will be translated different ways, giving the illusion that one refers to an ecclesial office while the other simply refers to being a servant. This distinction is unfortunate, in my opinion. For example, consider this passage from 1 Timothy:
Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13 ESV)
This is the famous passage that gives “qualifications” for deacons. In fact, it is the only passage that speaks of “deacons” in this way. Interestingly, the phrase “those who serve well as deacons” is a translation of a two word participial phrase. The exact same two words are used as nouns only nine verses later in 1 Timothy 4:6 – “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed.” (ESV)
Did you see where Timothy was called a “good deacon”? No? Well, that’s because the translators did not translate that same phrase as “good deacon” this time, but instead they translated it as “good servant”. Why? Well, everyone knows that Timothy wasn’t a deacon, right? He was the bishop of the church in Ephesus, right? Only, Scripture never calls Timothy a bishop or an elder, but here Timothy is encouraged to be a “good deacon”. It seems strange to me that Paul would use the exact same phrase twice within a few sentences with completely different meanings. Could it be that the meanings are not different? Could it be that both passages are describing good servants of Jesus Christ without reference to any kind of ecclesial office?
Today, as with many discussions, the conversation surrounding “deacons” usually revolves around the issues of control and authority. How much authority should a deacon have? How much decision-making control should churches give to deacons? And, along with those issues, we find the issues concerning gender: Should women be deacons?
Honestly, I think these questions completely miss the point. Those who serve well are not interested in making decisions or having authority. They are interested in using their abilities, talents, gifts, and situations in life in order to serve other people. They spend their time and their energy by helping other people, both believers and nonbelievers, both friends and strangers. As Dave Black said, they come to the aid of other people.
In this sense, Phoebe is certainly a good example of a servant – a deacon. If Moo is correct that Phoebe was “a woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the service of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and support”, then she should be an encouragement to us all. Wherever God has us, in whatever station or status in life, God has placed people around us that need help. They need physical help, emotional help, financial help, spiritual help. And, He has placed us where we are to be deacons in their lives – to be servants.
Are you looking for opportunities to deacon?