Response to Lee Irons

Lee Irons has already responded to my post (how did he do that so quickly?). He argues that Paul describes Phoebe as a woman holding the office of deaconess. He was convinced by Bob Strinple’s arguments, which are threefold. The first argument is that the grammatical construction of the participial phrase (involving the participle of the verb “to be”) points towards an official position. This argument is shot down by the counter example of Luke 13:16, which has the same participle, but certainly no mention of an office. There is no office of “daughter of Abraham.” This is a case of detecting an official sound in the participle because one wishes it to be so. Lee did not answer the contextual argument that was put forth in favor of service being the focus of Paul’s statement.

The second argument put forward is completely irrelevant to the meaning of διάκονον. The reason it is irrelevant is that, even granted that the καὶ is original, the idea of servanthood can just as easily be identified as an additional, complementary idea to sisterhood as “deacon” could be. The translation would then be “Phoebe our sister, being also a servant of the church at Cenchrea.” It simply does not settle the question. In fact, it does not even point in one direction or the other.

The third argument comes from the identification of the church at Cenchrea. The argument is that if Phoebe’s service were being mentioned rather than the office of a particular church, then the designation would have been simply “servant of God,” or “servant of Christ.” What this argument overlooks is that the designation can be equally easily explained by the idea that Phoebe was a member of a particular church and was dedicated to the service of that church. Maybe she wasn’t interested in serving the church at large. Maybe she was known so much for being a servant of that church that she was designated so. The point is that there are equally (I was would more) plausible explanations that do not read into the text something that simply is not there. Again, I refer to the contextual indications of verse 31 of the previous chapter, where service is most definitely the focus. The use of the word most likely triggered Paul’s mind in remembrance of others who also serve the church.  

5 Comments

  1. June 17, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    As an aside what do you think Lane of the Junia, Junias question?

  2. Grover Gunn said,

    June 18, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    I find helpful the paper by Brian Schwertley. See http://reformedonline.com/view/reformedonline/deacon.htm#Warfiel . He argues that the term “deaconess” as used by the early church refers to a member of a non-ordained lay order patterned after Paul’s roll of widows.I think Phobia probably was such a widow. See http://grovergunn.net/andrew/rom1601.htm. I think the relevant issue is that the Scriptures limit the ordained office of deacon to qualified males. To insist that the term “deaconess” can refer only to an ordained female member of the board of deacons is to make the same error which Warfield made when he argued from early church history for the ordination of female deacons in modern times.

    Grover Gunn

  3. rjs1 said,

    June 19, 2008 at 9:41 am

    You may be interested to know that Gill saw Phebe as being a deaconess.

    Here is John Gill on 1 Timothy 3:11

    Some instead of “wives” read “women”, and understand them of deaconesses, such as were in the primitive churches; whose business it was to visit the poor and sick sisters of the church, and take care of things belonging to them; but it is better to interpret the words of the wives of the deacons, who must be as their husbands, “grave” in speech, gesture, and dress, of an honest report, a good behaviour, and chaste conversation; which will reflect honour and credit to their husbands

    Incidently, here is John Gill on Romans 16:1

    Of this church Phebe was a servant, or, as the word signifies, a minister or deacon; not that she was a teacher of the word, or preacher of the Gospel, for that was not allowed of by the apostle in the church at Corinth, that a woman should teach and therefore would never be admitted at Cenchrea. Rather, as some think, she was a deaconess appointed by the church, to take care of the poor sisters of the church; though as they were usually poor, and ancient women; that were put into that service, and this woman, according to the account of her, being neither poor, nor very ancient; it seems rather, that being a rich and generous woman, she served or ministered to the church by relieving the poor; not out of the church’s stock, as deaconesses did, but out of her own substance; and received the ministers of the Gospel, and all strangers, into her house, which was open to all Christians; and so was exceeding serviceable to that church, and to all the saints that came thither: though it is certain that among the ancient Christians there were women servants who were called ministers.

    Further, he notes:

    “Nor is their [the deacon’s] work and business to rule in the church; we read of ruling elders, but never of ruling deacons; if they were, women might not be deaconesses, as Phebe was, for they are not to rule…There is but one sort of deacons of this kind mentioned in scripture; unless it can be thought there were women deacons, or “deaconesses;” and, indeed, Phebe is called diakonov, a “deacon,” or “deaconess,” of the church of Cenchrea; we render the word “servant,” (Rom. 16:1) and some render the “wives” of deacons, “their women,” (1 Tim. 3:11) and by them understand “deaconesses;” and if the same with the “widows,” as some think, their qualifications, as to age, character, and conduct, are described (1 Tim. 5:9, 10) and it seems certain there were such in the second century, whether virgins or widows; such seem to be the two servant maids Pliny speaks of, whom he examined on the rack, concerning the Christians, and by whom he says they were called “ministrae,” ministresses, or deaconesses; and Clemens of Alexandria, in the “second” century, makes mention expressly of women deacons, as spoken of by the apostle in his epistle to Timothy; so Jerom, in the fourth century, speaks of them as in the eastern churches: and, indeed, something of this kind seems not at all unnecessary, but of service and usefulness; as to attend at the baptism of women, and to visit the sisters of the church, when sick, and to assist them.”

  4. schreibs said,

    June 23, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    See the construction around Erastus in Rom 16:23. Paul identifies an office-bearer with the exact construction as in v. 1.

    Also, Paul could very well be playing up the theme of “service.” But then again, in Greek “service” and “deacon” are the same word. Paul could be playing up service while simultaneously be identifying Phoebe’s office.

  5. February 25, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    […] deacons has to start here. I have interacted with Lee Irons on this passage in the past (see here, here, and here). I have done further research on this passage, and the conclusion I came to startles me. […]


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