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Bible kevinroosecomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 16:1-2

Personal Greetings

16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant[a] of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.

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At the end of Romans 15, Paul concluded his theological teachings with a benediction — a blessing — to the Christians in Rome.

In Romans 16, he writes about the network of Christian leaders in the churches he planted. Several would go to Rome. Others sent their greetings from a distance. Paul names all of them.

He begins with Phoebe, who is serving the church at Cenchreae (verse 1), the port outside of Corinth.

It is possible that Cenchreae’s church was an offshoot of the one in Corinth.

However, Matthew Henry posits that, as it was dangerous to worship in Corinth, Cenchreae might have been where the Corinthians met for worship at that time (emphases mine below):

Cenchrea was a small sea-port town adjoining to Corinth, about twelve furlongs distant. Some think there was a church there, distinct from that at Corinth, though, being so near, it is very probable that the church of Corinth is called the church of Cenchrea, because their place of meeting might be there, on account of the great opposition to them in the city (Acts 18:12), as at Philippi they met out of the city by the water-side, Acts 16:13. So the reformed church of Paris might be called the church at Charenton, where they formerly met, out of the city.

John MacArthur thinks it was a separate church:

Now Paul is writing from Corinth and about nine miles away, eight or nine miles, on the Saronic Gulf was a port city, really the seaport for Corinth, known as Cenchreae. Any shipping that needed to be done from Corinth would be done at Cenchreae. It’s very likely that the church in Cenchreae was founded as a result of the ministry of the church at Corinth, that church spawning, if you will, a daughter church in that seaport town.

Paul ‘commends’ Phoebe to the congregation in Rome. He recommends her to them, in the way we have letters of recommendation from former employers when we interview for new jobs.

Therefore, he thinks very highly of her.

Paul asks that the Romans welcome Phoebe as they would a fellow believer — ‘worthy of the saints’ (verse 2) — because she is one of them, called by God to follow Christ.

He also asks that they give her all the help she needs while she is in Rome, because she has been a generous patron of her church and a patron to him as well (verse 2).

This is the only time Phoebe is mentioned, but Bible scholars have deduced several things about her.

She was a ‘servant’ to her church, the Greek word being diakonon, a deacon. At that time, around AD 56-58, there was no formal role of deacon, as we have today. At that time it was a more loosely-defined function, implying a leadership role in looking after those in need, as in Acts 6 with Stephen, the first martyr.

The early male deacons would have taken care of those in need and also preached.

Henry doubts if Phoebe would have been allowed to preach:

As a servant to the church at Cenchrea: diakonon, a servant by office, a stated servant, not to preach the word (that was forbidden to women), but in acts of charity and hospitality. Some think she was one of the widows that ministered to the sick and were taken into the church’s number, 1 Timothy 5:9.

Female deacons later became known as deaconesses.

However, deaconesses are very different from female deacons in today’s churches. Don’t ever call a woman deacon a deaconess today or you’ll live to regret it! I made that mistake once. I won’t do it again.

Historically, a deaconess performed acts of charity to the sick and others in need. She had no remit to preach to men, but she could teach women and, no doubt, children.

MacArthur explains:

They are to have been one-man women, that is women who were not unfaithful to their husbands. They were well reported of women for their good works, women who had brought up children, who had lodged strangers, and again we’re back to the fact that hospitality was very important in that world, women who washed the saints’ feet, who relieved the afflicted, who diligently followed every good work. Now that would be sort of the characteristic of deaconess, and surely those widows put on the list would function in that capacity as a deaconess.

As we look in the history of the early church we find that the role of those women in the first few centuries was to care for the sick, to care for the poor, to minister to strangers, to show hospitality, to serve martyrs in prison, taking them supplies and needs and providing for whatever might be desperately needed because of the exigencies of imprisonment. Those deaconesses were used to instruct new women converts in the discipling process, to assist in the immersion of women and to exercise a general supervision over ministries to the needs of women in the churches. Now that was the role of a deaconess and this was such a woman, a sister in Christ and a servant of the church who was no doubt recognized as one worthy of commendation.

By contrast, depending on the denomination, today’s female deacons — not deaconesses — can preach and baptise, but they cannot consecrate the bread and wine for Communion. They can continue with seminary and become priests or ministers.

Henry thinks that Phoebe might have hosted the church at Cenchreae for worship and for lodging:

Probably they used to meet at her house, and she undertook the care of entertaining the ministers, especially strangers.

Phoebe was probably financially independent:

Phebe seems to have been a person of some account; and yet it was no disparagement to her to be a servant to the church.

Note that Paul describes her as a ‘patron of many and of myself as well’. That implies she gave the church a lot of money as well as time:

verse 2 … thirdly it says, “That you are to receive her in the Lord as becomes saints and assist her in whatever business she has need of you for she has been (a succorer, or) a helper of many and of myself also.” We can use the word “succorer,” which is to say she has been a helper of many. The word actually means a benefactor. Now when I say the word “patron” do you know what that means? Do you know what a patron is? If you ever read any of ancient European history you understand the word “patron.” A patron was someone who financially supported someone else. Many artists had a patron. They would paint and they would do their sculpture and they would do whatever they needed to do. There were people who were researchers and students and scholars, and people like that would find a patron who would support them. Apparently this woman had enough means to provide a patronage for not only the apostle Paul but for others in the church. The term is prostatis and it basically in the Jewish community came to refer to a wealthy supporter. So this dear woman was a wealthy supporter, no doubt, of the church at Cenchreae. It may well have met in her home. She may have been to that church what Lydia was to the church at Philippi. And she also offered some support in some way to the apostle himself.

She must have had financial means, otherwise, she would not have made a journey to Rome. There was no tourism at that time. Most women did not travel far from where they lived unless it was for something important. If they did, they needed to be sure of safe accommodation. There were no hotel chains at the time.

Interestingly, Phoebe, living in Greece, had reason to travel hundreds of miles away to the heart of the Roman Empire.

MacArthur tells us more, including the dubious accommodation that inns offered in that era:

I like this, you assist her in whatever business she has need of you. She was on her way to Rome for some business, if indeed she was a wealthy patron it’s obvious she was probably going with some special business in mind. The word, by the way, there is not specifically the word “business,” it is a Greek word pragmateia, from which we get pragmatic. She was there for some pragmatic reason, for some transaction, would be the technical translation. She had come to Rome for a transaction of some sort, perhaps a legal matter related to her business and he tells the church, assist her. Now isn’t that an important thought. When someone comes to us, a stranger, we are in the church to provide not only love and spiritual affection but assistance in the matters of finance or business or whatever other matters that person might have in view that are not necessarily related directly to the kingdom of God. In other words, we’re to provide all of the resources necessary for bidding Godspeed and allowing that person to accomplish whatever objectives are in mind.

And it’s a wonderful thing for the church to do that, to assist each other in these kinds of things. Whatever she did, Paul said, whatever her business might be, whatever transaction she enters in, you know the people in Rome, you know how things are, you know who to see, you know who to talk to, you expedite that situation on her behalf

Letters of commendation were written — that was a well-worn custom in Paul’s day — when a believer, for example, would be traveling to another city and would want to go and fellowship with that church, that believer could carry a commending letter from the church in their own home town which would ensure to that new congregation that this was indeed one of the children of God, a brother or sister to be loved and received with hospitality. The reason for that was the need for a place to stay. In those days inns were nothing short of brothels. They were places where there would be perhaps looting and stealing. They were not safe places. And as Christian people traveled around in the Roman world, the letters of commendation allowed them to be received with love into varying Christian communities and shown hospitality and care for whatever matters of business they needed to carry on.

MacArthur says of the name Phoebe:

her name means “bright and radiant,” and perhaps that was true of her testimony.

Phoebe took Paul’s letter to the Romans with her and personally delivered it to them.

MacArthur says:

may I encourage all of you ladies that are here tonight that God has always used women and still does and uses them mightily in the advance of His kingdom. And though He did not use a woman to write a book of the Bible, He used a woman to transport that book, that most important perhaps of all books in terms of its presentation of the gospel, and therefore demonstrated that within the bounds of biblical definition and function designed by God for women, He uses them in marvelous and glorious tasks that do not violate His holy design for them. And so this woman is emblematic of all those women, who within the framework of God’s design, have borne a place of honor. And we see in the love of Paul the commendation of one woman that no doubt would extend to many other people who served him so well.

That is the story of Phoebe.

The Church remembers her in feast days at various times during the year, as Wikipedia explains:

The Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorates Phoebe with Lydia of Thyatira and Dorcas on January 27, the day after the commemoration of the early male missionaries Silas, Timothy and Titus and two days after the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The Episcopal Church does likewise. However, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod remembers her on October 25, while the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church place her feast day as September 3.

What a wonderful, holy lady she was.

Paul had more to say about his friends in the Church, men and women alike. More on that next week.

Next time — Romans 16:3-6

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