At the beginning of Romans 16, Paul introduces us to someone named Phoebe. He says:
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)
Many scholars (perhaps most) agree that Phoebe was delivering Paul’s letter to the many Christians who met in various groups around the city of Rome. He told them that Phoebe was from Cenchreae, which was a seaport on the eastern side of Corinth. He also told them that she was a servant and that she cared for many people, including himself. (The word translated “patron” can also be translated “protector” or “helper.”) I honestly don’t think Paul cared whether or not people used the title “servant” (deacon) for Phoebe. She served people and, therefore, she was a servant.
Paul also instructed the church in Rome to take care of Phoebe while she is with them. This is similar to other instructions that we see in the New Testament. Believers were expected to care for their brothers and sisters who were traveling through their city. (For example, see Romans 15:24, 1 Corinthians 16:5-6, 1 Corinthians 16:10-11, Titus 3:13, 3 John 5-6).
Paul does not tell us anything else specifically about Phoebe. But, by examining Paul’s recurring practices, we can learn other things about Phoebe.
For example, we know that Paul often left people in cities or sent people to cities to continue encouraging believers and proclaiming the gospel. We see this with Timothy (Acts 17:14, Acts 19:22), Silas (Acts 17:14), Erastus (Acts 19:22, 2 Timothy 4:20), Titus (Titus 1:5), among others.
Furthermore, when Paul sent a letter to the Christians in a city, he would have one of his co-workers deliver it for him. Again, we see this with Timothy (1 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Thessalonians 3:2), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), Tychicus (Colossians 4:7), Onesimus (Colossians 4:9), among others.
Paul always sent his letters by people that he trusted, who lived faithfully, who served tirelessly, who cared for people. Here are some of the way that he described these co-workers:
That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:17 ESV)
I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger [apostle] and minister to my need… (Philippians 2:25 ESV)
Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here. (Colossians 4:7-9 ESV)
This tells us the kind of people that Paul entrusted with his letters. He sent people who were faithful servants and who worked to proclaim the gospel. He expected them to deliver the letter to the church in the city, and he expected them to help the church in that city for a time. (Unless, like Epaphroditus, the person was returning to his or her home city, in which case, Paul expected them to remain their indefinitely.) Paul expected them to provide a living example of the things that Paul wrote in his letters.
So, as Paul says, Phoebe was a servant. She cared for and helped many people, including Paul. He expected Phoebe to deliver the letter, but also to tell the Christians who met in different places in Rome about Paul’s travels. He expected her to help and strengthen the church there. He trusted Phoebe, and he expected her to be a good example for the Christians in Rome.
In other words, Phoebe was an itinerant servant (an apostle) and a co-worker with Paul, in the same manner as Timothy, Titus, Erastus, etc.