A few weeks ago, my study in Scripture took me to 1 Timothy 3. As you know, the chapter outlines qualifications for church leadership. Perhaps the most debated part of that chapter is verse 11. Is Paul speaking of the qualifications of deacons’ wives? Or is he introducing a category of female servants in the church that one might refer to as “deaconesses”?
My intention in this post is not to answer that question. But while thinking through 1 Ti 3.11, I was led to consider Phoebe and what the apostle says about her in Romans 16. He describes her there as “our sister,” an incredible description in his contemporary male-dominated Hellenistic society. But Phoebe was no second-class citizen in the household of faith. In Paul’s estimation, she stood alongside the apostle as “an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ” (8.17).
Paul further notes that she was also “a servant of the church in Cenchrea.” Cenchrea was a harbor town a few miles ESE of Corinth. Not much is known about the church there. Did Paul plant this church while he was in town getting his hair cut (Acts 18.18)? If not Paul, then who? And who was its pastor at the time Romans was written? The Spirit chose not to record those details for us. But he has told us of an insignificant woman who served the saints in that town.
What struck me about this woman is what the Apostle Paul said to the Romans in the first few words of 16.1: “I commend our sister Phoebe to you.” Why would Paul commend a servant of a church in the Achaian peninsula (modern day Greece) to a church in the Apennine peninsula (modern day Italy)? The answer is stunning: he did so because she was probably the one who carried this letter to the church at Rome.
Can you imagine that? There is no theological work more important to the Christian church than Paul’s letter to the Romans. But the apostle did not commit the original manuscript into the hands of a strong, able-bodied man. Instead, he placed it into the hands of a humble, serving woman, who may not have even had the ability to read the letter. Yet she was charged to carry it nearly 800 miles over dangerous waters to its intended recipients. And the fact that we have Romans in our Bibles today is the result of God’s protecting her and enabling her to carry out what had been given her to do.
So take comfort today from God’s grace to Phoebe. At best, you are merely servus servorum Dei–a servant of the servants of God. But God graciously deigns to use insignificant people like us to carry out his eternal plan. What a great and gracious God!