Pheobe the Deacon

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.

Pheobe the διάκονος: Reflections on a Program for Assessing Deaconesses in EC

Saint Pheobe
Saint Pheobe

In the article “Deacons, Deaconesses, and Denominational Discussions,”[1] Clarence Agan III tackles the often controversial topic of NT women’s service is diaconal roles, employing Paul’s reference to Pheobe as a διάκονος as a test case. Agan begins this article with some important caveats, namely that a) discussions of women in the early Church must take a holistic approach rather than specifically-targeted rhetorical tactics, b) specific lexical factors surrounding διάκονος must be thoroughly investigated in their particular contexts, and c) a theological reading of prescriptions in the early Church should form only part (though an integral part) of contemporary denominational and theological reflections on women, gender, and church office. Using this approach, Agan argues that Pheobe’s title of διάκονος in Romans 16:1 should be understood as an indicatory of her emissary or representative status.

Next, Agan launches into a consideration of what could have been meant by the term διάκονος, wherein three central arguments become evident. First, scholars should not necessarily assume that the term διάκονος indicated what we now think of as the office of διάκονος, thus making a clarification and definition of terms of critical importance. Second, scholars ought to argue for—rather than assume—interpretations of διάκονος. That is, it is no longer fruitful (if it ever was) to either assume that Pheobe must have been a “servant” or that she was a full-fledged member of an order of deaconesses.

Model of Ancient Rome
Model of Ancient Rome

Third, scholars need to recognize the constellations of semiotic domains that a term like διάκονος would have inhabited in the ancient world. Here Agen delves into an examination of New Testament and Greco-Roman lexical evidence, locating among 770 entries and sorting them into four basic conceptions of διάκονος: table attendance, domestic attendance, communication/delivery, and agency/instrumentality. While Agan allows that each of these semantic realms could conceivably be applied to Pheobe, he argues that Pheobe’s status as letter bearer (along with additional communicative evidence in 15:25, 31) commends an understanding of διάκονος as “emissary”, “envoy”, or “spokeswoman”, thus fulfilling term’s communication/delivery functions. Agan closes with some remarks on the tentative nature of these findings and the need for clarity, charity, and patient discussion moving forward.

There is much of value for the study of women and gender in early Christianity in Agan’s presentation. Perhaps most laudable is Agan’s approach of advocating holistic approach, contextualized lexical reconstructions, and theological integration, as well as his closing call for clarity, charity, and patient conversation about an often heated topic. Insofar as Agan calls for a reassessment of the attitudes and questions surrounding women in early Christianity, I wholehearted agree with his presentation. His main lines of argument are also generally persuasive. Scholars should indeed strive for a clear definition of terms—assumptions are obviously important, but a vital area of scholarly interaction involves the investigation of historical and contemporary assumptions as a means of clarifying and enlivening interaction in both Church and Academy. Agan’s concern with arguing for—rather than assuming—definitions for and interpretations of διάκονος likewise falls into this helpful discussion of approach. Finally, Agan’s examination of the 770 lexical entries for διάκονος constitutes a helpful framing of how scholars might rightly understand that term in its ancient context.

Shepherd Early ChristianityOne area in which Agan’s argument was less than convincing was his neglect of how the Roman church might have been expected to react to Pheobe’s classification as διάκονος. That is, while lexical context sheds some light on how Paul might have used διάκονος, further consideration of why that particular was used and how Paul assumed the Roman church would understand what he was saying seems warranted. Agan might also have considered extending his study just a bit, perhaps considering the reception of Romans 16:1 and/or how other early Church documents employed διάκονος to women. While one must be careful not to de-contextualize and anachronize, some additional consideration of the ecclesiastical context of female διάκονοι would have further solidified his claims. Overall, however, Agan’s thoughtful approach and lexical insights commend this article to those studying women and gender in the New Testament and early Christianity.


[1] Clarence DeWitt Agan III, “Deacons, Deaconesses, and Denominational Discussions: Romans 16:1 as a Test Case,” Presbyterion 34, 2 (2008): 93-108.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

2 thoughts on “Pheobe the Deacon

  1. F F Bruce in an article for Christian Brethren Review 33 (1982): 7-14 pointed out that Paul referred to Phoebe as a ‘deacon (not deaconess!)’.

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