Recently an overture was made to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) to open the ordained office of deacon to women. This has stirred quite a debate. My commitment has been to carefully examine relevant passages to the argument in favor of ordaining women to the office of deacon in the original Greek language. This is the first draft of my exegesis. I have not yet consulted anything beyond Greek grammars and lexicons in my work. I wanted to come to my own conclusion about what I thought the text was saying before I began to really study what others are saying. I begin with my own translation of the text and then move toward exegetical thoughts.
“I commend to all of you Phoebe, our sister, also being a Deacon [or servant] of the church in Cenchreae, that you all may welcome her in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you all might assist her in accomplishing her task. For she has been a benefactor [or helper] of many, and to me personally.” [My translation]
Grammatical gender is not the same as biological gender. Here we have an interesting case of a grammatically masculine noun διάκονον referring to a biological female Phoebe. In Romans 15:8 we have the same noun referring to Jesus Christ (a biological male) as a διάκονον. The nominative masculine singular word διάκονον can refer to both a male or a female.
In Acts 19:32, 1 Corinthians 14:23, Colossians 1:24 and in 6 other cases the word ἐκκλησία is in a Nominative Feminine Singular form and it refers to both males and females. Both males and females belong to the class of people ἐκκλησία.
Nigel Turner notes that a plural masculine noun covers both masculine and feminine subjects (Moulton Grammar of the Greek NT vol. 3, p.22). The question is whether a singular masculine noun covers both male and female subjects as well. It seems in the case of διάκονον and ἐκκλησία that the nominative singular forms in both grammatical feminine and masculine nouns can refer both to males and females.
The grammatically masculine διάκονον is a class word that refers to both biological males and biological females in its singular form. What does this mean? If the word διάκονον is referring to a job title then it could include both males and females, but it is not a requirement. But we are faced with the example of Phoebe here in Romans 16:1.
If Paul had referred to elders and deacons as established offices in his greeting to the Romans, as was his custom in other letters, one could conclude that Phoebe was an ordained deacon in the church of Cenchreae. But Paul does not refer to deacon as an office in Romans. Such a reference is made in Philippians 1:1, for example. The question boils down to timeline. Was the office of deacon an established ordained office at the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans?
Acts 6 shows the Apostles ordaining 7 men to an office focused on the care of widows. They called for the church to appoint 7 men to “διακονεῖν tables.” The job title “Deacon” was not given to those ordained for this task. But the description of what they would do is at the root of the office. A deacon (servant) is one who deacons (serves) tables. We see the office emerging in Acts 6 but the Church has yet to give the office a specific name. But they did ordain 7 men to fulfill the duties required of them in this yet unnamed office (v. 6).
The word διάκονον can also be translated “minister” or “servant”. Thus Paul could be referring to Phoebe simply as a person who ministers or serves in the church. That is, he could be referring to her doing diaconal work but not to a specific ordained office. She is a “minister” or “servant” in the church of Cenchreae but has not been ordained to a specific office.
Paul makes a specific point to ask the Roman Christians to assist Phoebe in the work she has (v. 1-2). This statement could mean that Paul was lending his authority to her work: “Look, Romans, she isn’t ordained but I still want you to help her in work.” It could also be a reminder: “Phoebe is a Deacon in Cenchreae, and she is doing official work for the Apostolic community, of which I lead.” Paul is requesting a voluntary submission to Phoebe’s authority on the part of the Roman Christians in order to complete some task.
There is certainly a possibility from exegesis of the text to conclude that Phoebe was an ordained deacon. It is also possible that Phoebe was regularly engaged in unordained ministry and because of this was useful to Paul in some capacity to minister at Rome.
Further the text speaks of Phoebe as a προστάτις. This word only appears here in the Greek NT and appears in a grammatically feminine form. It can mean protector, patron, helper in other Greek literature (BAGD, p. 718). The text indicates that she has served as a προστάτις to many including Paul himself. But has she served this way out of her own personal resources or by stewarding the resources of the church in Cenchreae? The text, as I read it, doesn’t seem to indicate which option is best. If she was acting in an official capacity as a προστάτις then it is easier to see her as an ordained Deacon. But if she was acting as a προστάτις out of her personal wealth then it would not require ordination in my view. The problem is that the text is not clear in which what manner she is acting as a benefactor to Paul and others.
Romans 16:1-2 make is plausible for ordained female deacons who stewarded the resources of the church during the Apostolic period. These ordained female deacons could have existed at the time of Paul’s writing to the Church of Rome. At the same time, Paul could be referring to Phoebe as a in unordained ministering servant who provided assistance to other Christians by stewarding her own personal resources.
My conclusion is that Phoebe was doing diaconal work in Romans 16:1-2 but she was not necessarily ordained by the laying on of hands and prayer for that work. Here διάκονον may not be an official title but rather a title descriptive of the work she does in the church.
The ambiguity here means that one can hold that Phoebe was an ordained deacon as a plausible exegesis of the passage. Therefore, based on Romans 16:1-2 it would be within the realm of Reformed orthodoxy to favor the ordination of women to the office of deacon. Certainly, one could hold the position and not be faced with accusations of not submitting to the authority of Scripture or believing in its inspiration. But it is not a certain exegesis. That means that those who view Phoebe as an unordained ministering servant are also well within the realm of Reformed orthodoxy. In other words, Romans 16:1-2 opens the door of possibility for women deacons but doesn’t make a conclusive case for them.