What About Phoebe?

Thinking about Darius Jankiewicz,
“Phoebe: Was she an early church leader?”
(Ministry, April 2013, pp. 10-14).
Lonny Liebelt
My wife and I recently had opportunity to get-away to our beloved mountains and we found a nice sunny spot to relax in our lawn chairs. While we sat there, she read an article to me from our latest Ministry magazine, titled “Phoebe: Was she an early church leader?” by Darius Jankiewicz (Ministry, April 2013, pp. 10-13). I do not write to attack or judge the author; but as an earnest defence of the truth (Jude 3).
The author spent a great deal of time discussing the different possible meanings of two words Paul used with reference to Phoebe. For instance, he says,

The role of Phoebe in early Christianity has been hotly debated throughout the centuries, ranging from views suggesting that her ministry was nothing more than that of a helper (or patron) of the apostolic task, to those ascribing to her a significant ministerial role. As we shall see, this debate often influenced the biblical translations of the Greek words used by Paul to describe the ministry of this remarkable woman
(p. 10).

The words in question are DIAKONIS and PROSTATIS. We should keep in mind that it is not every word that is inspired, but the writers themselves. We believe in thought inspiration rather than each distinct word being inspired.

It is not the words of the Bible that are inspired, but the men that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man’s words or his expressions but on the man himself, who, under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is imbued with thoughts. But the words receive the impress of the individual mind. The divine mind is diffused. The divine mind and will is combined with the human mind and will; thus the utterances of the man are the word of God (Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 21).

Whatever conclusions we think we can draw concerning a specific word, it will always be important to weigh also the totality of what an author has to say on that topic. Wouldn’t it be wise to understand Paul’s statements in regards to Phoebe also alongside the rest of his statements about church governance and headship (e.g., 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 14:26-40; Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Timothy 2:11-14; Titus 1:5-12)? Paul was certainly consistent in his understanding of God’s divine order and plan for the roles of men and women in the home and in the church. And yet, these statements of Paul are conspicuously absent in this article.
Dr. Jankiewicz points out that one interpretation of the words DIAKONOS and OUSA could mean that Paul recognized Phoebe as a deacon and if that was so, his exhortation to bishops and deacons found in 1 Timothy 3 would apply to both genders.
But there is a problem here. The language in this passage has to do with males who are the husband of one wife and who rule their houses well. Another church historian, the late Mervin Maxwell points out that here, “the literal translation of the Greek is ‘man of one woman.’ And he goes on to say,

The statement that a bishop or elder is to be the husband of one wife, does not stand in naked isolation; it stands at the climax of a passage (1 Timothy 2 and 3) that begins with the duties of every Christian person, (ANTHROPOS in Greek), then moves to the different duties and limitations of man (AN R) and woman (GUN) and reaches a kind of climax with the passage that includes the statement that the bishop or elder is to be the husband/man (AN R) of one wife/woman (GUN)’ (Adventists Affirm, vol. 9, no. 1 Spring 1995, p. 32).

The Ministry article is strangely silent about this feature. And, when we look at the article carefully, we find it sprinkled-through with this language: “hint at,” “appears to,” “most likely,” “some sort of,” “was probably,” “more implicit than explicit,” “it is conceivable that,” “perhaps,” “some kind of,” “could be,” “seem to,” “most likely,” “perhaps,” “we believe it conceivable that,” and so on. Could this kind of reasoning make Phoebe into someone other than is clearly presented in the inspired writings?
The author endeavors to make the case that because Paul used the word PROISTAMENOUS (which can also be translated “helper,” “protector,” “succourer,” “patroness”) for Phoebe, and it is the word used also in 1 Timothy 5:17 with regard to elders, that Phoebe must have been an elder. But this is stretching the point. You can be a helper, protector, or patroness—and still not be a bishop, overseer, or elder who is the husband of one wife. In the same chapter, in verse 22, Paul tells Timothy to “lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins; keep thyself pure.” The context (vv. 17-25) in which verse 22 appears has clear reference to the male elder. In his letter to Titus, the masculine context is the same (Titus1:5-9).
This same Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12-14 that a woman was not to have the headship/leadership position in the church but rather be in respectful submission.
In 1878 J.H. Waggoner wrote:

The divine arrangement, even from the beginning, is this, that the man is the head of the woman. Every relation is disregarded or abused in this lawless age. But the Scriptures always maintain this order in the family relation. ‘For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the Head of the church.’ Ephesians 5:23. Man is entitled to certain privileges which are not given to woman; and he is subjected to some duties and burdens from which the woman is exempt. A woman may pray, prophesy, exhort, and comfort the church, but she cannot occupy the position of a pastor or a ruling elder. This would be looked upon as usurping authority over the man, which is here (1 Timothy 2:12) prohibited (J.H. Waggoner, “Woman’s Place in the Gospel,” Signs of the Times, Dec. 19, 1878).

The question begs to be asked, Would Paul contradict himself and recognize in Phoebe a position of headship in the early church even though he spoke against that in other places? The obvious answer is, No. To be fair, we must take into consideration the rest of his statements on the subject, along with other passages in the Bible that deal with headship in home and church.
Laurel Damsteegt writes,

Is it any wonder that only three years after Waggoner’s article, in 1881, the first motion submitted to the General Conference to ordain women to the Gospel ministry died a quick death? The motion was referred to committee and did not emerge again for nearly another century. Early Adventists were clear on leadership roles and Gospel order (Laurel Damsteegt, “Shall Women Minister,” Here We Stand, p. 725).

Make no mistake. Phoebe was a woman who was a worker and a real influence in her community and church. She was the kind of godly person you would want to have in your own congregation. But what the Ministry article attributes to her and the lesson its author suggests we absorb is not consistent with what the whole of the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy teach.
Having read the article, I wondered what Ellen White might have to say about Phoebe. Would she recognize her as a ruling leader and elder in the early church? Would she use this opportunity to underscore a liberating role change for women in the early Christian church? One reference was located in Mrs. White’s writings, in Testimonies, vol. 6, pp. 343, 344, in the chapter entitled, “Showing Hospitality”:

But the Lord designs that we shall care for the interests of our brethren and sisters. The apostle Paul has given an illustration of this. To the church at Rome he says: ‘I commend unto you Phoebe 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 succorer of many, and myself also.’ Romans 16:1, 2. Phoebe entertained the apostle, and she was in a marked manner an entertainer of strangers who needed care. Her example should be followed by the churches of today.

Here then, is an example and lesson about Phoebe we can embrace—and one that does not lean on “sort ofs,” “hints,” and “that which is conceivables.”
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Lonny and Gerita Liebelt have served in pastoral ministry in the Carolinas, Indiana, California, Wyoming, Washington, and Montana. They presently live near Libby, Montana.

2 replies on “What About Phoebe?”

Thank you, Pastor Liebelt, for your carefully reasoned article. Unfortunately, it seems that the proponents of women’s ordination will grasp at any straw to promote their agenda.

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