I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea; that ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you; for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.” (Romans 16:1-2)

  • Introduction
  • 1) Who She Is
  • 2) The Instruction of Her Example
  • The Attitude of the Church Towards Her

Proverbs 31:10-31:

 10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies. 11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil. 12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. 13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands. 14 She is like the merchants’ ships; she bringeth her food from afar. 15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens. 16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard. 17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms. 18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night. 19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. 20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. 22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land. 24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. 25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. 26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. 27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. 28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. 29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. 30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. 31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

There are two reasons why I have decided to preach to you on this passage from the Word of God. The first reason is that this passage is quoted by those who support the idea of women serving in the office of deacon. They do this because the word “servant” which is used in verse 1 can also be translated accurately and properly by the word “deaconess,” so that the text would read, “I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a deaconess of the church which is at Cenchrea.” There is no question about it that that is indeed a proper translation as far as the word itself is concerned. The question which we must face is this: is that a proper translation in this particular passage, or are the translators of our King James Version right when they translate that word by “servant”?

The second reason why I call your attention to this passage of Scripture is that it gives to us by the example of Phebe instruction as to the proper place of women in the church. Phebe occupied an important place in the church at Cenchrea, and this is included by the Holy Spirit in the Scriptures for our instruction. We must receive this Word of God as such because there are those who would argue that the whole of Romans 16 is not really, in the strictest sense of the word, the Gospel to the church. They point to the fact that the whole of chapter 16 is composed of greetings which the apostle extends to various friends in the church of Rome, and that therefore it has no real value for the church of today. We must not take that position, of course. The question is, if that position is correct, why did the Holy Spirit then put it in the Bible? The Holy Spirit knows what the church today needs. So, we have in this entire chapter also part of the Word of Christ to the church; and we have that also in the example of Phebe.

The Scriptures do not tell us very much about Phebe. In fact, these two verses of Romans 16 are the only two verses in the whole of the Scriptures which refer to her, and the information that the Scriptures give us in these two verses is rather meager.

Nevertheless, in the first place, she is said to be a member of the church at Cenchrea. That is rather interesting. If you will take out your Bible a moment and look in the back of your Bible at the map which gives the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, you will find on the left-hand side of your map the peninsula of Greece. The peninsula of Greece was divided into two main sections. The northern part is called Macedonia, in which were found the cities of Thessalonica, Philippi, and Berea. The southern part of that peninsula is called Achaia or Greece, and you will notice that in that part of the peninsula is to be found the Church of Corinth; and just a little ways to the south and east of Corinth is to be found the city of Cenchrea, where there was a church and where Phebe had her membership papers.

Now that church at Cenchrea was evidently established at the time when Paul, on his second missionary journey, made Corinth the center of his labours. That was usually the policy of the apostle in his missionary work: to establish a certain center of work and then to branch out from that center into all the surrounding area to preach the Gospel. This is why, for example, we read in the Book of Acts that in the time in which Paul laboured in the city of Ephesus the whole of Asia heard the Gospel. Ephesus was the center. The same thing was true of Corinth. Corinth was the center of missionary labour and the whole of Achaia heard the Gospel, and the fruit of that was that a church was not only established in Corinth but in Cenchrea also. We read, in fact, in Acts 18:18 that the Apostle Paul, when he had finished his work in Corinth, and prior to his journey to Jerusalem, stopped in Cenchrea to fulfil a vow which he had made, and in fulfilment of that vow he shaved his head.

In the second place, Phebe was not only a member of the church at Cenchrea, but apparently a woman of considerable means. That is implied, at least, in the fact that Paul says of her that she was a succourer of many, and of myself also. It is also implied in the fact that although she was a member of the church at Cenchrea, she had journeyed to Rome on business, and the Apostle instructs the saints in Rome to assist her in whatsoever business “she hath need of you.” It is because of that that, from almost the second century on, the church has said that this Epistle to the Romans was carried by Phebe to Rome from Corinth; and that is why you have here in the chapter this commendation of her. If you would look at the end of the Epistle to the Romans you would find there at the end this note appended, “Written to the Romans from Corinthus and sent by Phebe, servant of the church at Cenchrea.” So she evidently also carried this letter to the Romans which Paul had written.

In the third place, however, and more importantly, the apostle calls her in the text, “our sister.” Now that is a very common expression in the Scriptures, as you know. The people of God, in their relationships to each other, were often called brothers and sisters. We ought to say just a word about that because that not only is a very important truth, but it really undergirds the instruction of the Scriptures in these two verses. When the Scriptures speak of the people of God as brothers and sisters, then the figure of speech which is implied is that the church constitutes a family; and that indeed in our earthly families where there are parents and children you have a certain reflection of that spiritual relationship that prevails in the church of Jesus Christ. In that family God is the Father. He is the Father in the first place because of the work of adoption whereby He makes His elect people legally His sons and His daughters. God is the Father of that family, in the second place, because of God’s work of regeneration, according to which He so works that His people are born again a second time and are born into the family of God. In that family Christ is the elder brother because He is the firstborn. He is the firstborn already in the counsel of God. In the womb of the counsel of God, as it were, Christ is born first, emerges first, to prepare the way for all His brothers and sisters to follow. As the firstborn, He is the heir, the heir of all His Father’s possessions, just as the firstborn in the Old Dispensation received the double portion. As the firstborn, He is the Lord of His brothers. He rules over them just as in the Old Dispensation the firstborn who received the birthright had the lordship over his brothers. The result is that all God’s people are brothers and sisters only because of the work of Christ which He performs; and in Christ all God’s people belong to that one glorious family of God. They are, therefore, brothers and sisters in that one household of faith.

Now the important part of this truth is that, from that point of view, the Scriptures teach that men and women in the church of Jesus Christ are equals. Just as brothers and sisters in one family, in relationship to their parents, stand on a plane of equality so also do all the saints. Peter speaks of the fact that men and women are fellow heirs of the grace of life; and that very work of salvation puts men and women in the church in that spiritual relationship on a plane of total equality. Women, too, are believers. They, too, have the anointing of Christ. They, too, along with men, are prophets and priests and kings in the family of God.

Does all that mean, however, that this text teaches that Phebe was a deaconess? That is the question. I say again that if it is proper to translate this text, “I commend unto you Phebe our sister which is a deaconess of the church which is at Cenchrea,” then indeed we must have women as deaconesses in the church of Jesus Christ. But is that true?

I’d like to ask you to take out your Bibles because we are going to look at a few Scripture passages in this connection. I want to call your attention, in the first place, to the fact that it is rather striking that there are only two places in the whole of the Bible where this word can properly be translated as deacon, apart now from the question of the translation of this text. The first such passage is in I Timothy 3:8-13 where the apostle in writing to Timothy lays down the qualifications for the office of deacon. That is one passage where the word must be translated “deacon.” The only other passage is in Philippians 1:1 where the apostle sends his greetings to the church of Philippi and specifically mentions in that connection the bishops and deacons (bishops here referring to the elders) so that his greetings are sent especially to the office-bearers in the church of Philippi. There are no other passages, apart from these two, where we know for sure that this word must be translated “deacon.”

On the other hand, there are many, many passages in the New Testament Scriptures where this word cannot be translated deacon but must be translated simply by the word “servant.” I want to have you look with me at two of them. The first is in John 12:26. These two are chosen almost at random, but if you look at John 12:26 one will find that the Lord says this: “If any man serve me, let him follow me, and where I am there shall also my servant be.” Now that word “servant” is exactly the same word as is found in Romans 16:1, and it is perfectly obvious that you cannot possibly translate that word by deacon; it wouldn’t make sense. “And where I am there shall also my deacon be.” So there the correct translation is “servant.”

The second passage is Matthew 23:8-11. Jesus is once again talking here: “But be ye not called rabbi, for one is your master, even Christ, and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth for one is your father which is in heaven, neither be ye called masters, for one is your master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” Now, once again, although the same word is used there which is used in Romans 16, the translations cannot possibly be “deacon”; it wouldn’t make sense. “But he that is greatest among you shall be your deacon,” would be incorrect. Obviously the correct translation is “servant.” So, the point is, and that is the point which needs to be stressed, that this word has a much broader meaning than simply referring to the special office of deacon in the church but can refer to anyone who serves others and is busily engaged in ministering to the needs of others.

That, however, it cannot refer to women is clear from I Corinthians 14. And I’d like to have you look up that passage too. Paul is talking in this chapter about good order and decency in the worship services and in the life of the church of Jesus Christ as she comes to institutional manifestation in the world. And in verse 34, this specific and concrete injunction is laid down concerning the life of the church, “Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak, but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.” Now, that text is so clear and so conclusive that those who argue for women in the office of deacon simply write this off as referring to the church of Paul’s day only, but as having no relevance any longer for the church of today. But I would like to call your attention to what the text itself says: this is not a matter of my personal judgment concerning how things ought to go in the church of Corinth, but this is a matter of the law. The law, the law which is normative, the law which is an expression of the will of God for all times, says, let your women keep silent in the churches.

Now, there are two points that we should notice about this, and the first point is this. The office of deacon as Christ has instituted it in the church is also an office that has only one calling, the calling to bring the Word of God. That is why the text in Corinthians covers the office of deacon too. We must not say that the office of the minister of the Word is to bring the Word of God, but the offices of elder and deacon are not to bring the Word of God, as if they have another kind of work to do. We must not say that that is not true. It is true that each one functioning in the office must bring the Word of God according to the unique character of his own office, whether that be the office of ministry, the office of government in the church, or the office of dispensing the mercies of Christ. But, nevertheless, each officebearer has authority only because he comes with the Word of God. That is why our Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons says that the work of the deacons is also to bring to the poor the comforting words of the Scriptures. All three offices share that in common, that they come with the Word of God to God’s people. They do not have any authority at all apart from that Word. The very authority of their office rests in the authority of the Word! They have authority only because when they come with the Word they say to God’s people, “Thus saith the Lord.” Otherwise their office means nothing at all. And it is because of that that the Scriptures say, women must keep silent in the church. They must not speak the Word.

The second remark is this. I cannot for the life of me understand why women are so eager to get into office in the church. The argument is, of course, that those who occupy an office in the church occupy a superior position and that everybody else who does not hold that office is in a certain inferior position; and when, therefore, women are forbidden the office, they are consigned to a certain inferior position in the church. That is not true. We must not look at the offices that way. We have to remember that, according to the words of Jesus, it is just the other way around. When Jesus, in the upper room with his disciples just before He was crucified, celebrated the last supper with them, we read that Jesus washed His disciples’ feet. And after Jesus had explained to Peter just what this was all about and had overcome Peter’s silly objection because Peter had a wrong notion about this, then Jesus said to His disciples, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me Master and Lord, and ye do well, for so I am. And if I as your Master and Lord wash your feet, so ought ye to wash one another’s feet.” And the whole idea is that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Master of His church. But as Lord and Master He became the lowliest of servants for all His people. He worked as a slave. And He did that by suffering and dying on the cross for His people. He became their servant, their slave, their despised slave by suffering and dying on the cross. And now Jesus says, Let that be a lesson to you in what it means to occupy a place of authority in the church. To occupy a place of authority does not lift you up to some kind of pedestal where you are exalted over your fellow saints. Oh, no, it doesn’t. But to occupy a place of authority means very, very simply that you be a slave to God’s people, the lowliest of slaves to God’s people. We ought to get that straight once, that whole idea about putting women in a position of inferiority. There is nothing to that. It arises out of a terrible misconception of the office, as if an office-bearer is some kind of a supreme dictator in the church, who can from his high pedestal rule over God’s people. Oh, no, it is not like that at all. If we have the correct idea of what the office is all about we would not have so much of a problem with this question either.

So, the correct translation here in Romans 16 is indeed that Phebe was a servant of the church at Cenchrea. How was she a servant? The apostle does not say very much about that in the text. He speaks of the fact emphatically that she was a servant of the church, and he defines that in this way in the latter part of verse 2: “That she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.” There have been all kinds of speculation about that. Some commentators take the position that the church at Cenchrea met in her house, that she made her living quarters available for the church until they had a building of their own. Others say that, because Cenchrea was nearer to the coast than Corinth, Cenchrea was a city through which passed all kinds of people who were coming from Corinth and going to Corinth, and Phebe opened her house to the saints who were passing through the city on the way to the seaport, and that she made her house a kind of hotel in which she cared for the needs of God’s people who were travelling. Others say that in addition to these things she probably lived in a certain relationship to the apostle Paul which was similar to the relationship in which certain godly women lived to Christ, that is, that she cared for the apostle’s needs. She saw to it that he had food to eat, that his clothes were washed and mended, and that his material needs were provided for.

The text does not tell us any of this. All of these things may be true, but the Holy Spirit has chosen to leave this all out of the text, and not to tell us specifically what kind of work Phebe did. And the reason why the Holy Spirit is quiet about this is that He wants us to understand that Phebe is an example to godly women in the church in every age, in the particular station and calling in life in which God has placed them. If you read the Scriptures, already in the Old Testament, and throughout the New, you cannot help but be impressed with the fact that the Scriptures give to women in the church a most exalted place. In fact, and I say this with some hesitation because I must leave the application to the Holy Spirit in your own heart, but the Scriptures leave us with the distinct impression that especially in times of spiritual crisis when there were few or no men who were spiritually-minded enough to care for the church, the responsibility for the welfare of the church fell upon women, and they more than men saw to it that the church continued. It may very well be that that is a commentary on our own times. I think, for example, of the days of the judges, when the only man available to fight the battles of Jehovah was Barak, who was afraid to fight unless Deborah went along. He didn’t have the courage; he didn’t have the faith. He didn’t have the complete trust in God that was necessary to fight against foreign invaders; and he flatly refused to go unless a woman went with him. I think of the example of Hannah who prayed so earnestly for a son, and who had a husband who was spiritually stupid, who seemed to lack the least bit of spirituality, who couldn’t understand why Hannah wanted a son so badly, and who in his stupidity and lack of spirituality said to Hannah, “What’s the matter with you, woman? Am I not better to you than a dozen sons?” As if Hannah’s desire for a son meant that she didn’t love her husband! He couldn’t understand that Hannah’s desire for a son was her profound concern about the promise of God and about the coming of Christ. He had no feeling for that. I think of the days of wicked Athaliah, when she seized the throne, an impostor (from the house of Ahab) on the throne of David; she proceeded forthwith to kill all the seed royal. There was not a man to be found in the whole nation that had the courage to stand up against her. And there was not a man that had the courage even to prevent her from slaughtering the seed royal until a woman, Jehosheba, at the risk of her life, took one little baby of the seed royal, and fled with him and hid him until such a time as he could be crowned king.

How often Scripture seems to impress upon our mind that in times of spiritual decline and in times of apostasy, the welfare of the church seems to rest upon the shoulders of godly and pious women.

The point is that the church of Jesus Christ recognizes the fact that women have an important place in the church, and that indeed the life of the church, her very spiritual vitality and welfare is dependent upon the presence in the church of godly, God-fearing, virtuous women, without whom the church cannot exist. In the family of God they have such an important place that without it the family of God suffers.

It is that way. I cannot by any means give you an exhaustive list of what the Scriptures teach concerning this. I want to call your attention to a couple of elements anyway. In the first place the Scriptures make it very clear that the place of women is primarily in the home. I am, frankly, terribly disturbed about the fact that so many of our mothers work. There seems, from the viewpoint of the Scriptures, no question about it that if this persists in our churches, our homes are going to be destroyed, and if our homes go, our churches and our schools will go too. The home is the foundation of the church and of the school. But it seems as if women want to work nowadays because of the fact that they are dissatisfied and discontented with their God-given place in the home, and that the home and the work of the home seems to them an intolerable bore. The Scriptures do not present it that way. The Scriptures speak rather of the fact that there are few, if any, callings in all of life that are more noble than the calling that Christian mothers have to be busy in their homes in the bringing forth and nurturing of children. There has got to be, beloved mothers—and I speak to you now from the depths of my heart—there has got to be a special place in heaven for godly and pious and virtuous mothers, who are content to take that place which God has given them in their homes, and are content to bring up their children in the hard day-to-day work of caring for the needs of the family. I cannot do that work. And that God has enabled women to do that is a miracle of no little importance. They have a noble calling from God which will be rewarded greatly when these humble mothers stand before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ. And the benefits of their work for the welfare of the church is beyond evaluation. We cannot begin to understand the tremendous benefits which the church and the schools receive because of the patient work of the God-fearing mothers.

In the second place, the Scriptures speak of the fact that there is in this family of God a whole area of Christian charity and benevolence which is beyond and at the same time the support of the work of the deacons. Not all Christian charity in the church of Christ is done by the deacons. It cannot possibly be. But the saints mutually—and we have evidences of that within our own congregation for which we ought everyday to be thankful—there is an area in the church of Jesus Christ where the saints together bear one another’s burdens, care for one another’s needs, help one another when some saints are in desperate trouble. And that work of charity which characterizes the church as a whole is the foundation, really, of the work of deacons. The foundation! The deacons could not do their work unless there was this broad Christian charity which the saints constantly showed to each other. And in that particular work God has given women an especially important place because they have from God natures which can do that kind of work much, much more readily than men. They have sympathy; they have understanding; they have a charitableness of spirit that men simply do not possess. And God has therefore given them that calling in the church, without which the church would not be nearly as strong or as spiritual as it is. Originally, you know, even our Ladies Aid Society was organized with that specific purpose. That is why they were called Ladies Aid Society, because those societies help the poor.

In the third place, I am reminded of that passage in Titus, Titus 2, which speaks of the place especially which older women occupy in the church—that is, the women whose families now are grown up and whose children have left home and have established families of their own. Paul writes about them as follows: “The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers (mind you, teachers), of good things.” And here is how they must teach: “that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their husbands, that the Word of God be not blasphemed.” Isn’t that beautiful? In other words, these older women who have had much experience in the difficult path of being a good wife and a godly mother are entrusted with the responsibility of helping the younger mothers in the difficulties of their calling. The younger mothers have all kinds of problems, you know, being good wives, helping their husbands, bringing forth children. And those problems they cannot talk about to the deacons. They cannot even talk about those problems oftentimes to the minister or to the elders. They are much too personal, much too intimate, to discuss with just anybody. Paul says, and the Holy Spirit says, God has put women in the church to take care of the younger mothers. With their sympathetic and kindly nature, and with all their experience, they may teach the younger mothers what they have to know.

And so, we could go on. The point is that God has given to women, to virtuous and godly women, a place of excellency, of honour in the church, so that the very welfare of the church of Christ is dependent upon these godly women. And it is that which is the reason for the injunction that the church receive these godly women in the Lord, as becometh saints. That, too, begins in the home. Husbands must honour their wives. How many of you husbands pray for your wives? How many of you do? I mean at the table, when your wife is there, and your children are there. That you pray for your wife. That you bring her needs before the throne of grace so that she may know and the children may know that she is held in esteem and in honour in the home, and that the work that she has to do is such a difficult task that it requires the abundant grace of God for her to perform her calling. How many of you do that? You should. And you should, by all your conduct in the home make it very clear to your wife and to your children that the place which mother occupies is a place of esteem a place of honour, a place of respect, because of the tremendous importance of the calling which the Lord has given to her.

And so the church must also receive these godly women, as Paul instructed the church in Rome to receive Phebe. Never let it be said of the church of Jesus Christ that they hold down women. Because if that is true, the church is unfaithful. In the family of God in which God has called us to live in this tight-knit relationship of the spiritual family where we are all one by the Spirit of our Elder Brother, Jesus Christ, women have their glorious and exalted place by God’s appointment, fellow heirs with us of the grace of life. The very welfare of the church of Christ is dependent upon faithful, godly women. May we as a church receive them from God with thanksgiving and encourage them in their work and assure them of the blessing of God which will rest upon their faithful labours. May God give us that grace that our congregation here may prosper. Amen.