We're studying a dedicated single lady this week, who was mentioned by Paul in his letter to the Romans:
Phoebe was from the town of Cenchreae, which (even though the name has changed) is still today a port town in the province of Achaia in Greece. Whether for business reasons, personal reasons, or simply a change in her place of residence, she was traveling to Italy. And it is to her that Paul entrusts his letter to the Christians in Rome.
Paul first calls this lady a "sister." When Paul uses this term, it doesn't mean they had the same mom. (Grin) He is referring to spiritual relationships. In I Corinthians, he calls the Christian husband and wife "the brother and the sister." Paul also refers to Timothy as his "son in the faith." So, Phoebe was a member of the spiritual family, the family of Christ. She was redeemed and the Holy Spirit lived in her.
A woman is our sister if she shares our experience of God's saving grace. That is how we are made members of His redeemed family. I wonder how many conflicts and bad feelings could be avoided if we just remembered that simple truth? Would we want to be short, or terse in our conversations with someone who is our sister in Christ? Would we want to talk about her when she was not around? How many of our sisters will we meet in heaven? I for one look forward to that day, when our longed-for coffee shop study will become a reality! I have some hugs to give to all of y'all!
So, Paul uses the term "sister" to indicate she is a Christian.
He goes on to say that Phoebe is not only a Christian, but an important and loved member of the church. The word he uses has been translated in several ways over the years, from deaconess to ministrant, to servant. In any case, she had met Paul when he arrived in Cenchrea on his third missionary journey, and was devoted to the church and its members. I don't guess we can know for certain (that is, until we can ask Paul or Phoebe in heaven) if she was a true official of the church. Was she set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands? What were her duties? Did she inquire into and seek to relieve members' distresses? To plead the case of a forgotten widow before a neglectful, richer "brother"? Did she bravely battle oppression for those less fortunate than she?
We don't know if such an official name as "deaconess" was in use at the time, but we can see that there is the possiblity that she was a teacher of the women and children of the faith community, and that she could have been responsible for the needs of the poor among the church. Even if her role was not an official one, we can see that it was a gracious, effective one, and she was one of the forebears of the vast numbers of women who have rendered loyal service to both Christ and His church.
It's my personal belief, after studying Paul's letters, that she may have taught the women and children, but not the men. And that her role was that of a noble and reliable helper to the leaders of the church. I think that we have to be cautious today about "tweaking" how the church should look or operate -- just because of how society feels we should look. After all, the world has always been critical of Christians, right? Even though we don't want to unnecessarily offend someone, we must never go against our conscience, or our understanding of the Scriptures. I may very well be wrong in my interpretation on this issue, and I will be open minded as I listen, but if you want to convince me, the explanation must match up with the Word of God! (Grin)
Next, Paul says that Phoebe has been a benefactor -- the Greek word he uses is "prostatis" and has been translated in the KJV as "succourer." Kind of a hard word for us today; we don't hear it much! In the Greek, it's a really expressive word, and it means "one who stands by in the case of need." It used to describe a trainer in the Olympic games -- the trainer would stand by the athletes to see that they were properly trained and ready for the signal. It's almost akin to the word that we would call "champion," or one who stands up for others. It seems that Phoebe may have had a history of being unselfish and brave. She may have been a devoted champion of believers who found themselves in trouble. Paul says that she was a benefactor to him, as well -- perhaps she contributed to his ministry, or gave of her wealth to make sure his needs were met. Perhaps she tended him during a sickness.
No matter which of these assumptions is true, Paul urged the believers in Rome to receive her in the Lord. Godly Phoebe is a testimony to what Christ can do through a life that is consecrated to him.