10 May 2017

Phoebe and Bobby V: Why those Who Insist that she was Not a Deacon, I Insist are Wrong

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bobby's World, C. R. Nichol, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Moses Lard, Women

They Say I Am …

(I posted an earlier form of this on my Facebook wall but have expanded it and modified it and offer it here because many have continued to ask me about this matter.)

They say I just want to be popular. They (some anyway) say that I do not believe in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. They say I am “liberal,” “progressive,” “apostate,” “have no spiritual discernment” (all have been said and recently at that).

I do not take these charges lightly and in fact they cause me a great deal of pain. Why are these charges hurled?

Because I do not believe in the Trinity? No. I Do! (Ironically, I probably believe in the Trinity more than my critics.)

Because I do not believe that God created the world? No. I Do!

Because I do not believe in the Virgin Birth? No. I Do!

Because I do not believe Jesus walked on water, fed the 5000, or raised Lazarus? No. I Do!

Because I do not believe in the sufficient and atoning work of Jesus or his supreme Lordship over all? No. I Do!

Because I do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead? No. I stake my life on it!

Because I do not believe we respond to God’s grace in repentance, faith and baptism? No. I Do! (Again probably more than my critics.)

So Why????

Because I Actually Believe the Bible

So why? What makes me a “Bible denying liberal apostate?” Because I believe that women – females – are allowed to read Scripture, to pray, to wait on the Lord’s Table, to do announcements … to teach, to be a “deacon”!!

I did not come to this conclusion over night.  But I have held the position I have held for many years and have not shied away from that position nor the biblical reasons that demand I take that position.

It took Alexander Campbell over a decade from the time of his immersion at the hands of Matthias Luce to also understand the significance of the sacrament’s connection to remission of sins. Alexander Campbell was no dullard, his experience is instructive. Sometimes reading something takes on deeper significance after some growing in wisdom, faith and simply life.

If we walk with the Spirit in his word, God will will teach us things. As Campbell shows sometimes we simply grow into the truth if we are attentive to the Spirit, who empowers his own sword. If we are seeking the truth rather than simply points to win a debate it is amazing what we learn.  See my article Campbell: Lessons in Fearless Bible Study.

I claim no “new” revelation. I simply claim to have come to a better understanding of the revelation than I had before. Some so resist the notion of learning something new that they are like the preacher I heard speak in chapel at IBC back in 1988/89 who said, “I have not changed my mind on a religious subject in forty years.” As young, and ignorant, as I was in 1988, I still wanted to go grab his wrist to see if there was a pulse to find out if he was dead.

My Journey to Believing the Bible on Women … Enter Phoebe

My journey began many years ago first with Phoebe of Cenchreae. Later an episode with my daughter Rachael further opened my eyes and caused me to dig into the text. She wanted to lead a song as an 8 year old because on Sunday night.  She noticed her same age classmate, Chad, got up to lead a song when it was said, “if ANYONE wants to lead a song [we did that once a month in Milwaukee on sunday nights]” It never occurred to Rachael that “anyone” meant “any male.”). Well turns out that “anyone” did not mean “anyone” but Rachael did not understand that yet. Why should she? She was a mere child of eight.  But back to Phoebe.

I had stumbled across Alexander Campbell’s 1826 translation of the New Testament called The Living Oracles. (See my article The Living Oracles). I read it cover to cover. I recall never having paid attention to Romans 16.1-2, until that day.

I recommend to you Phebe [sic], our sister who is a DEACONESS of the congregation at Cenchrea” (my emphasis).

I was stopped dead in my tracks. The words “sister” and “deaconess” simply did not go together in my experience. I had no category in which to place this translation.  Honestly I had never heard of Phoebe prior but I had memorized the “qualifications” of elders and deacons in our classes that stressed how to defeat others in debate but did not major in exegesis.  Since then, I have learned I was completely ignorant of a realm of exegesis and church history (and frankly so are a lot of ministers).

Alexander Campbell created such cognitive dissonance in me. How could this be? I suppose this is why some preachers do not read church history, because then they are safe from cognitive dissonance.

You see in my experience growing up it was common to label everyone that disagreed with our particular version of “sound doctrine” as non-believers, Bible deniers, apostates, and liberals … the same thing some are now calling me!

But I knew that Campbell was not “liberal.”  I did not know that much about him to be honest but when his name was mentioned it was always good (and there was a portrait of him in the hallway!). Then I took “Restoration history” with Wayne Kilpatrick but we talked neither of the Living Oracles nor Phoebe.

So here was a non-liberal calling a woman a female deacon! Alexander Campbell! I could not call him a feminist with any sense of integrity (they did not exist!). I could not say he was selling out to culture. This was decades before the women’s suffrage movement! I had no answers.

I could just dismiss Campbell and forget about it. But my cognitive dissonance did not allow that. I had to know why this patriarch of returning to New Testament Christianity called a woman a deacon. If you know me then you know I have had several of these experiences.  I have  bull dog in my DNA and I will turn over every rock to find an answer.

Discovering and Believing the Truth

Why did Alexander Campbell translate Romans 16.1 as he did? The answer, I have discovered, is because the Apostle Paul, not some “liberal” feminist actually called this woman a deacon.

But I never knew that. What I learned was my lenses on my face, my bias, my prejudice, kept me from seeing the truth.  Campbell was fearless enough to simply translate the text and let the chips fall where they may. Most do not have that courage.

I had always been told, as stated above, that a deacon had to be the husband of one wife and therefore women could not be deacons. So my doctrinal belief, not any exegetical reason!, eliminated even the possibility of any such thing. My doctrine was the lens thru which I read the Bible, I did not simply read the naked text.  But I did not know that. When we let our doctrinal belief determine what a passage of scripture can, or cannot, say then we are on dangerous ground and it is not the Bible that is the authority regardless of what we claim notwithstanding.

But then, there is Romans 16.1. I never knew it used the same word in Phil 1.1. But Campbell refused to let prejudice determine his translation and so he rendered it as above. The Greek text calls Phoebe a “diakonos of the church in Cenchreae.” I never knew this. So now more cognitive dissonance thanks to Campbell. Campbell is to blame that I came to “a knowledge of the truth.”

This a technical question and so we need to pay attention to some technical details of the text.  These details have been important in my journey to believing the Bible on women. Diakonon is the predicate accusative in “simple apposition” to the name, Phoebe. This is made emphatic by the feminine participle “ousan” in Romans 16.1. Further, “diakonon” also functions as the head noun of verbal quality in construct with the genitive phrase “tas ekklesias” and its modifying clause “in Cenchreae.”  Further, there was no feminine form of the word “deacon” in the first century so the Apostle Paul uses a masculine noun in reference to Phoebe. This is not first grade Greek.

For those that want to do some digging, I recommend looking at Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NT for the predicate accusative (pp. 190-91) on the genitive of origin/source (pp. 109f; 116-124). Wallace is a complementarian, not an egalitarian.  He still has to deal with the grammar and he does so.

What all this techy stuff means is that it seems really difficult to deny that Phoebe was an actual agent of and for the church in an official capacity. She held an “office” of some sort.  So this is why Campbell translated as he did in 1826. He was a man of courage! And he did not care what epitaph you hurled at him. I have learned that epitaphs are used as a way to discourage (ironically) the Berean spirit.

Explorers Knew This Truth Before Me

Over the years I have learned that those who understood Phoebe to be an actual “officer” of the church are among some of the most luminous names in Christian history. I was surprised when I learned that John Calvin understood Phoebe to be a deacon. In my research I discovered that Campbell and Calvin were not alone. Origen, the most of the Fathers, various documents showing that women were actually deacons and then I learned the Catholic Church destroyed the office in the medieval period. I learned that the father of the doctrine of innerrancy, B. B. Warfield, read Paul as did Calvin and Campbell. Soon Walter Scott, Robert Richardson, Daniel Sommer, Robert Milligan, H. T. Anderson and B. W. Johnson. Moses Lard was among the explorers who taught what Romans 16 says.

Lard needs no introduction to those semi-familiar with our history. Lard was hand picked by Campbell to defend the Movement against the attacks of Jeremiah Jeter,. He became editor of Lard’s Quarterly, Apostolic Times and his learned Commentary on Romans as well as President of the College of the Bible. In his Commentary, published in 1875, he voices the following exegesis.

Phoebe was a servant of the church in Cenchrea. This much is actually asserted. Was she appointed to the service by the church, or did she assume it of herself? The question is not material. For whether she assumed the service of her own accord or was appointed to it, she performed it with the Apostle’s sanction. This stamps it right … I am therefore of the opinion that Phoebe was a deaconess in the official sense of that word … Even in the present day, the deaconess should be re-established. They are often of as much importance to a church as the deacons, if not more.” (Commentary on Romans, p. 451)

Then came my discovery of C. R. Nichol’s epic book, God’s Woman. Nichol the arch debater, Foy E. Wallace mentor, defender of the “old paths,” simply could not be dismissed as seeking popularity.  See my interaction and review of God’s Woman in my article C. R. Nichol’s God’s Woman: Gospel Advocate Writer Says Women Can Pray and Teach … In Church!. Read that link.

I learned that one of the earliest references to the church outside the NT, Pliny’s letter to Trajan, refers to two women that were called deaconesses.

I have a hard time calling these heroes, liberals, apostates, and non-believers. Even if in my CofC prejudice I could rationalize casting out Origen, Calvin and Warfield, I still have to deal with how those epitaphs apply to Campbell, Moses Lard, Daniel Sommer and C. R. Nichol. More cognitive dissonance!

Were all these men just non-believers?

Romans 16.1 in Translation: What is Phoebe?

Tyndale NT (1525), I commende unto you Phebe oure syster (which is a MINISTER of the congregacion of Cenchrea) …

Great Bible (1539/40), I commend unto you Phebe, oure syster (which is a MINYSTER of the congregacion of Cenchrea) …

Bishop’s Bible (1568/1602), I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a MINISTER of the Church of Cenchrea: …

Rheims New Testament (1582), And I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is in the MINISTERIE of the Church that is in Cenchris: …

Revised Standard Version (1946), I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, …

Phillips New Testament (1958), I want to introduce you to Phoebe, our sister, a deaconess of the Church at Cenchrea …

Jerusalem Bible (1966), I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae …

New Revised Standard Version (1989), I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae …

New Living Translation (1996), I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon of the church in Cenchreae …

Many more translations can be produced that affirm the truth of Phoebe.

My Epiphany: Lenses Fall Off 

One day it it hit me … Bobby it is your assumptions are wrong! (See my article on the devastating and blinding affects of Assumptions: What We Assume Often Hides the Truth.) If I dropped my assumption, then Romans 16.1 is actually in complete harmony with 1 Timothy 3.11.

I had assumed that 1 Timothy 3.11 was about wives of deacons but could never explain why Paul did not have a similar list of “qualifications” for elders wives.  But Paul simply says women in 1 Timothy 3.11 not wives (same Greek but there is no reason to translate it as “wives” here).

What became clear is that folks, who often had a negative view of women, actually believed that 1 Timothy 3 was speaking of the ancient order of female deacons of whom Phoebe was a prime example.  First Timothy 3.11 is talking about female deacons! My false assumption of one verse became the bedrock of my false interpretation of another verse.  But it is clear that both Timothy and Romans are about female deacons. And that is exactly how the early church read it. This position is held across all traditional theological and denominational divides: Brenden Byrne (Romans, pp. 447-48); C. E. B. Cranfield (Romans vol 2, p.781f); James Dunn (Romans 9-16, pp. 886-87); Andreas Kostenberger (various places); Doug Moo (Romans, p. 916); Thomas Schriener (Romans, pp 786-88); N. T. Wright (NIB: Romans, pp. 761-62). Kostenberger, Schriener and Moo are all “Complementarians” and not “Egalitarians.” My assumptions were wrong. The text was never wrong.  But I was.

A very helpful work on checking assumptions

Phoebe Deacon and Reader of Paul’s Most Important Epistle

More surprises are to be discovered regarding Phoebe.  Some want to dismiss Romans 16 as “post script theology” but I suppose Jesus would say that it is still part of the “jots and tittles” that will not pass away.

I have come to believe that one of the most damaging hidden assumptions we moderns make is that first century people had a Bible like we do. No person, Jew or Gentile, ever saw a bound volume called a Bible. Ever! It was not until after the invention of printing over 1400 years after Jesus’s ministry that an average person might own a New Testament much less a Bible.

The vast majority never have even held a copy of a portion of Scripture in her or his hands. No person took the “Bible” (or the scroll) home to study it alone. These things simply did not exist. Not in the first, not in the second and not for a normal person until the invention of the printing press.

The only possible exception to this is the Ethiopian. But the Ethiopian is a vastly wealthy man and as far as the record goes has one book of the Bible, Isaiah. The scroll of Isaiah would cost, according to scholars, approximately 1200 to 1500 dollars to purchase. That is a lot of money. See my article Evel Knievel, The Grand Canyon & Us: The Strange and Deep Gulf to the Bible on costs for Romans for example.

People in the early church experienced the Bible as depicted in the synagogue in Acts 13.15. A lector, a person with the ability to read, read from a scroll to the assembly. The copy did not belong to the reader. There would not be multiple copies of a “book” but A copy. You, and I, as normal people would hear the reading in the assembled group.

This is witnessed to in Revelation 1.3. “Blessed is the ONE [singular] who reads the words … blessed are THOSE [plural] who hear it ...”

The text is read orally by the lector to the assembly. No one of whom have a personal copy. The reading is a “church” exercise, a communal exercise by definition in the ancient world.

Letters, like Revelation and like Romans, were dictated. They were hand delivered as there was no post office or FedEx. The person who delivered the letter was usually a trusted associate of the writer and present when the letter was composed. The person that delivered the letter usually READ the letter to the addressee. They stood in as the presence of the author.

How do we know this kind of information? From letter writers like Cicero and Seneca. But also from the countless normal folk who whose letters ended up in the trash heaps in Egypt, the koine papyri.

Two recent studies have conclusively shown that the letter carrier was supposed to read and explain the letter to receiver. P. M. Head, “Named-Letter Carriers among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 31 (2009), 279-299 and same author “Letter Carriers in Ancient Jewish Epistolary Materials,” in Jewish and Christian Scripture as Artifact and Canon, ed. Craig A. Evans. (2009), 203-219. Randolph Richards Paul the Letter Writer as well.

We know that Paul frequently sent letters via his trusted associates like Timothy and Titus. Titus clearly has this function in 2 Corinthians 8.16ff, etc.

It is universally agreed that Phoebe, the deacon of Cenchrea, delivered Paul’s epic letter to the Romans. She is described by Paul as a patron (16.2). She was therefore a very prominent person. Educated (she can read). And has enough means to travel.

There is no reason to believe that Phoebe, the letter carrier, did not do what was expected of normal letter carriers in Paul’s day.

1) stand in for the author

2) orally read the letter to the audience (the church)

3) like Titus or Timothy, explain, interpret Paul’s meaning here and there.

Therefore the greatest letter in the New Testament was delivered by a woman. The greatest letter in the New Testament was orally read to the Roman churches by a woman … the Deacon Phoebe.

Embracing the Truth

For years I did not even know that the most important thing Paul said about Phoebe was not even that she was a Deacon but that she was a “prostatis,” a “patron.” Most older translations simply render the word something like “helper” (Rom 16.2). Paul does not call Phoebe a “helper!” The NRSV correctly calls her a “benefactor.” A patron. It is Roman historians, not NT scholars, that have forced us to look at Phoebe afresh because in the past the patronage of Phoebe was simply and utterly ignored. Patronage was an essential part of Roman society and they were people of significant clout.

But that is for a future post but it tells us a great deal about who Phoebe was and what it meant for her to be a Deacon too. But to those gainsayers out there, I say this with as much love as I can muster, you are wrong.

And I was wrong. Phoebe was in fact a leader in the church in the port of Corinth. She was a deacon in the absolute official sense of the word and that does not mean such condescending things as she did nice things for people and ran the nursery. She was a patron for Paul. She was the letter carrier of the Epistle to the Romans. And she orally delivered his message.  This is Phoebe.

I claim the biblical heritage of Campbell, Warfield, Calvin, and C. R. Nichol. They were not liberals. They were not apostates. They were not deniers of biblical authority or inspiration. They were driven to their position because of the Bible. Why is it that they can be regarded as “faithful” but we who have come to the same position are sell outs! I have my thoughts on that and will keep them to myself.

To quote Luther … Here I Stand … and that is the tale of Phoebe and Bobby V.

3 Responses to “Phoebe and Bobby V: Why those Who Insist that she was Not a Deacon, I Insist are Wrong”

  1. Phanat Ouch Says:

    Appreciate the time and effort that went into this article. I will need some time to digest this information. Please keep me in your prayers as I study to show myself approved of God. 🙂

  2. Profile photo of limb2016 Robert Limb Says:

    My Dear Bobby,
    I appreciate very much this article. You know that I have no problem agreeing with you about Phoebe, and I thank God especially for the detailed way in which you so humbly lead us through this “epiphany” of yours. I pray that God help me see through the remaining blind spots in my own thinking – and that He lead others to have the courage to question cherished beliefs. THAT is why we need His Spirit in our hearts.

  3. Dwight Says:

    In regards to deaconess. While I Tim.3:18 wives maybe women, it is clearly within the context of men as deacons on either side and vs.19 uses the same word “husband of one woman”, so I do not think this makes a great case for an office of a deaconess, parallel to an office of a deacon.
    However when reading about Pheobe here authority is often downplayed. She may be a “deaconess” or maybe a servant, which are the same, she was serving others. 1. According to Rom.16 Paul tells the saints in Rome to “assist her in whatever business she has need of you”. This is different than help her as she does what she is doing, but it gives her authority to direct others.
    2. She is from the congregation in Cenchrea. So this shows cross pollination of sorts. Often we argue that the Elders and Deacons cannot behave as Elders and Deacons outside of their respective congregations, but here we find her with authority outside of her congregation. She is being a servant to those whom she is among at that time. Her servitude doesn’t end at the borders of her town.
    Phoebe seems to be much more than just a servant, but a servant of servants to the extent that Paul argues that all those in Rome, male and female, need to help her.
    The position or office of elders and deacons argues for people who are given those positions, but not for people who are naturally doing those positions.

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