Lesser Known Saints: Phoebe

This is another post in my series on lesser known believers, those Paul mentions usually at the end of his letters. I think we can learn a lot from the little that is said about them. Check out my other posts on Epaphroditus, Epaphras, and Onesiphorus.

Today I want to highlight Phoebe. She is mentioned prominently in Romans 16.

“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

Many have focused their study of Phoebe exclusively on what specific role she played in the church. I’m not going to get into that because others have done a better job, and I think that debate obscures Paul’s point. Yes, there are important issues and questions regarding the role of women in the church. But many times the discussion can devolve into a desire for power and recognition. That’s something Jesus warned his disciples of and Paul’s life was devoid of. He also takes great pains to warn the church of such things – see his letters to the Corinthians. Paul highlights Phoebe not to prove that women should have some distinct leadership role in the church but to highlight her character and her indispensable role in serving the saints.

When Paul wrote this letter he had been in ministry for a long time and had amassed a great and varied network of friends and supporters. Some of them were women like Phoebe. As was his habit, he closes his letter to the Romans by mentioning the saints who’ve partnered with him, sharing a multitude of greetings and, in Phoebe’s case, making an introduction. Mentioning her first in this list of greetings probably meant that Phoebe was the bearer of this letter to the Romans. Paul calls her a patron of many and of himself. Phoebe then was likely a very wealthy businesswoman. But notice what she is doing with her money. She is using it to further the gospel. Other translations call her a helper and a benefactor. She was from the church at Cenchreae, which was located near Corinth, but perhaps she heard Paul’s advice contained in his letter to Timothy at Ephesus:

“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”

Paul was in Corinth and needed this letter to get to Rome. Such an important letter wasn’t to be entrusted to just anyone. He needed to choose someone with the means to get to Rome but also someone who was trustworthy, someone who had proven character. Phoebe made the trip on his behalf, enduring the peril of travelling to Rome.

She leveraged the earthly wealth God had given her for greater spiritual ends, not to make a name for herself in her own church, but to spread the name of Christ to another church! Unfortunately, church members with earthly wealth have traditionally had more sway in their local churches. Sometimes they hold even more power than the pastor! Phoebe’s example should subdue any such practice in the gospel believing church. The only descriptors she’s given in this introduction are these: sister, servant, patron. A sister, servant, and patron are all other-centered ways of describing someone.

Phoebe is a sister, sharing the faith of all who believe. She is a servant in her own church. Yes, the Greek word for servant here is diakonos, from which we get the word deacon, but don’t get sidetracked into a debate about position and influence. What really matters is what she did. She served. That’s what diakonos means. It is not a position that you lord over others. It’s a position you use to serve others. And she served in such a way as to deserve a worthy welcome from the Roman believers.

How do we want to be described? And how are we using the earthly wealth God has given us? Do we desire position and influence, to make a name for ourselves, or do we desire to serve others in the name of Christ?

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