Back in the 1950s, many Christians loudly objected to the translations of certain verses in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Today some of those translations seem tame compared to the more-popular New International Version, but at the time they were revolutionary. Some would even use the word heretical. One of the most hated verses was Romans 16:1. The RSV was the first major English translation to fail to translate the word used to describe Phoebe in this verse. That version read, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae,” Since then, the New Living Translation (which is really a paraphrase, rather than a translation), and the New International Version have used the gender-neutral “deacon” in this verse. Most other English versions use the words servant or minister.
Before going further, it must be pointed out that women have a vital role to play in the congregation of the Lord. Without the women, much would not get done that is done. Women seem to be more adept at planning and executing social events. Women do much of the teaching in Bible classes. Most church secretaries (an office not found in the Bible but vital to the modern church) are women.
Obviously women held important positions in the church of the first century. Besides Phoebe, who was singled out in the verse in question, one could also mention Priscilla who had a seemingly equal part in teaching the lost as her husband. (Acts 18:6) She is also mentioned in the verse after the ones about Phoebe, being called Paul’s coworker. In addition, some of the older widows seem to have been given jobs by the church. (1 Tim 5:3-13) Phoebe herself may have been one such widow.
Some might say that Phoebe could not be a deacon (or deaconess)—as in the office of deacon mentioned in 1 Timothy 3—because women are not to take a leadership role over men in the church. The word itself means a servant or one who ministers to another. By its nature, then, a deacon is not a leadership role. The objection that the office of deacon cannot be filled by a woman because it would put her in a position of authority over a man is, therefore, extremely weak.
The strongest argument that Phoebe could not be a deacon in the traditional sense comes from 1 Timothy 3. Among the requirements of a deacon is one that would disqualify women: “Let the deacon be a one-woman man.” (1 Tim 3:12) Some have accurately pointed out that in the previous verse, the word often translated as “let their wives be …” is literally “even so women should be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.” Taken by itself it would seem to be a qualification for a female deacon. Taken with the following verse, however, the “their wives” translation, though weak, may be accurate.
On the other hand, the passage about widows in 1 Timothy 5 sounds suspiciously like the deacon passage in chapter 3. They must be 60 years old, a one-man woman (the exact phrasing of chapter 3, but reversed in gender), and having been reported of (compare “first be proved” in chapter 3) good works. The role and qualifications of a widow “on the payroll,” so to speak, make it sound like Paul is defining another “office” in the church; one that could easily be described, like Phoebe, as deaconess.
All this is not to propose such an office in the modern church. There is, after all, that 60+, widowed and destitute rule. It might be of value, however, to look at this particular role of women in this different light.