Phoebe was a woman leader for whom Paul had great respect as is borne out in the language he used to describe her. The power of his words is lost in our English translations but is very obvious in the Greek (Rom. 16:1-2). In fact, an argument could be made from Paul’s own words that Phoebe had once functioned in a pastoral-type role toward him.
Phoebe Was a Minister
In Romans 16:1, Paul refers to Phoebe as, “A servant of the church in Cenchrea.” The English word “servant” in this passage is misleading. It is from the Greek word diakonos and should be translated as “minister.”
Indeed, diakonos is translated as “minister” in 23 places where it is used of men, including Paul, Barnabas and Apollos (1 Cor. 3:4). In this one place where it is used of a woman, these same translators chose to use the word “servant,” a clear example of their bias (Hyatt, Paul, Women and Church, 26).
Diakonos does literally means “servant” but became a word for Christian leaders as a result of Jesus using it in response to the request by James and John for special seats of power in His kingdom. Jesus replied that whoever wanted to be great must become a diakonos, that is, a “servant.”
From that declaration of Jesus, diakonos became a common designation for Christian ministers, highlighting the servant character of Christian leadership. The well-known evangelical theologian, E. Earle Ellis, wrote:
Diakonos is used frequently in the Pauline letters for those who exercise ministries of teaching and preaching. The title is given to Paul and to a number of his associates who are active on a continuing basis as traveling missionaries or as coworkers in local congregations. In terms of modern function, it best corresponds to the modern designation “minister” (Hyatt, Paul, Women and Church, 27).
Designating Phoebe as a diakonos shows that she was a “minister” from the church in Cenchrea who had been sent by that church to Rome on a special assignment. Paul recognizes her as such by using the same word for her that he uses for himself, for Barnabas and for Apollos.
Phoebe Was a Woman “Set Over” Others
Paul also said that Phoebe had been a prostatis to many, and of myself also. The KJV and NKJV translate the word as “helper,” but Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon says that prostatis refers to “a woman set over others” and that it describes Phoebe as a “guardian, protector and benefactor.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says that prostatis is a word of “dignity” and indicates the high esteem with which she was regarded.
These definitions are correct for prostatis is made up of the prefix pro, meaning “before,” and “istemi,” meaning “to stand.” It, therefore, literally means “to stand before” and identifies Phoebe as a leader with the qualities one would expect in a modern-day pastor (Hyatt, Paul, Women and Church, 28).