NLT Romans 16:1 "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea."

Another question on this site looks at diakonon being male, here I want to take another focus.

John 2:9 "though the servants who had drawn the water knew" ESV servants/diakonoi.

  1. There is no hint that I am aware of that the diakonoi who filled the water pots were Christians and part of the church. We might call this the everyday default definition.

  2. We are told in 1 Timothy 3:8 about the office of deacon in the church. "Deacons must be....must hold the mystery of the faith...". We might call this the specific office definition.

We have two definitions: Is there any positive evidence to lift the meaning of diakonoi in Romans 16:1 up from the default to the specific office definition?

I suggest that even in the church we can only go from the catch all default definition up to the specific office definition if we have positive evidence to enable this.

I, and others before me, see no positive evidence that Phoebe ministered as a patron/prostatis from wealth collected by the church, as oppose to any private wealth she may have had of her own.

How might the NLT justify translating diakonon as "deacon", or the ESV putting "deaconess" as an valid alternative in its footnotes to this verse?

  • The evidence might, Idk, all of Christian history? Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 23:31

5 Answers 5


The translations using deacon or minister for Pheobe in Romans 16:1 are clearly biased, as they didn't use deacon in John 2:9. It is not exclusive to NLT. I don't think this bias about deacon office in the Church maybe necessarily derived by the misinterpretation that she was being a patron from the Church funds itself. Such a view is ridiculous, as if that was the case, Paul wouldn't have praised her for her personal patronage. How can anyone be called a patron if they merely use the Church funds?

Paul's instructions excludes women to have any role of authority over men, so it leaves no room for the feminists to justify their position, but even if we consider the office of a deacon for a woman, then it would imply that it has no authority over men. So, we shouldn't have objections to the translations or the groups who call some females as deacons, ministers and apostles, as this doesn't contradict with the overall gender roles in the Church. However, the more reputable versions us servant for Phoebe.

Bible org site writes on this topic of female deacons:

Note, for example, Epaphras, a man associated with the church in Colossians. In Col 1:7 he is called a DIAKONOS, yet no translation (that I know of) regards him as a deacon; in 1 Tim 4:6 Paul calls Timothy a DIAKONOS—and Timothy was associated with the church in Ephesus. But he obviously was not a deacon. So, why then should we call Phoebe a ‘deacon’? The term is thus rather flexible and it seems gratuitous to call Phoebe a deacon in Rom 16:7.

Second, 1 Tim 3:11: This text does not even mention the word DIAKONOS.1 Rather, it used the word ‘women’ (or ‘wives’). It is wedged in the middle of a discussion of the qualifications for deacons (vv. 8-13). The argument that it refers to women deacons is precisely this: it is in the context of deacons. Further, a second argument is that if wives were intended, why does Paul mention nothing about wives in his section on elder qualifications (1 Tim 3:1-7)?

In response are five arguments:

(1) If women deacons are in view in v.

11, it seems rather strange that they should be discussed right in the middle of the qualifications for male deacons, rather than by themselves;

(2) Paul indeed seems to go out of his way to indicate

that women are NOT deacons in the very next verse, for he says “Deacons must be husbands of one wife”;

(3) as to why he didn’t

mention wives in the section on elders, there are one of two possibilities that come to mind: (a) since Paul was addressing some real problems in Ephesus, it may well be that the deacons’ wives had been a major concern; (b) concomitantly, since deacons’ duties involved taking care of physical needs, they would have been in control of the mercy funds in the church—and, if so, it would be imperative for their wives to be ‘dignified, not scandalmongers, but sober, and trustworthy in everything’ (REB). One can readily see the psychological realities of such instructions to deacons’ wives: they must be tight-lipped when it came to discussing the very personal needs of the body.

(4) Again, if v. 11 is addressed to women deacons,

why are most of the qualifications not listed—that is, the only qualifications that pertain to the women would be the four items listed in this verse. But would they be allowed to be addicted to strong drink? Wouldn’t they have to prove themselves blameless before serving as deacons? Wouldn’t they have to hold fast to the mystery of the faith in a good conscience? The very fact that all these requirements seem so universal and yet are given specifically only to the men seems to argue against women deacons being in view in v. 11.

(5) Finally, the original manuscripts of the New Testament were not

divided by chapters and verses. And sometimes our divisions get in the way of seeing the overall context. There seems to be an unnatural break between chapters 2 and 3—or, at least, one that is too abrupt. I take it that 2:8 through 3:16 are all addressing conduct in the church. The issues revolve around men and women throughout these two chapters. And the very fact that Paul says in 2:12 that women were not to teach or exercise authority over men seems to govern what he says in chapter 3 as well. Thus, if deacons are in a role of exercising authority, then I would argue that Paul implicitly restricts such a role to men. [...]

  • Your last big paragraph is full of good points but to make it more readable I wonder if it would help to edit in spaces.
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 12:46
  • @C.Stroud you can do it if you can.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 13:01
  • Is this a help or a hindrance?
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 15:27
  • @C.Stroud it is fine. No problem
    – Michael16
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 15:29

OP wrote: There is no hint that I am aware of that the diakonoi who filled the water pots were Christians and part of the church.

The Greek word G1249 is used elsewhere.

Philippians 1:1 New International Version

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God's holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons [G1249]

1 Timothy 3:8

In the same way, deacons [G1249] are to be worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain.

In the above usages, it refers to Christians.

Cambridge Bible offers this explanation:

We must not assume that Phœbe was a deaconess in the full [official] later sense of the word; but that her position was analogous to that of the later deaconesses seems at least most probable.

Jamieson-Fausset-Brown points out some extra-biblical evidence:

of the church which is at Cenchrea—The word is "Cenchreæ," the eastern part of Corinth (Ac 18:18). That in the earliest churches there were deaconesses, to attend to the wants of the female members, there is no good reason to doubt. So early at least as the reign of Trajan, we learn from Pliny's celebrated letter to that emperor—A.D. 110, or 111—that they existed in the Eastern churches.

Romans 16:1

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea.

Pliny's letter suggests the idea of deaconess started in the Eastern churches. Phoebe was a hard-working servant of the church in Cenchrea, an Eastern church. Perhaps she was one of the pioneers of deaconesses before it was officially labeled as such by the church.

How might the NLT justify putting "diakonon" as "deacon" in view of John 2:9?

Not in view of John 2:9, but in views of Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:8, and Pliny's letter. Still, NLT probably had jumped the gun a little in translating "diakonon" as "deacon" in Romans 16:1. At https://biblehub.com/romans/16-1.htm, only 5 translations out of 27 translated it as such.

  • 1
    You mention Philippians 1:1 but how can this be relevant to Phoebe when women are not mentioned in this verse? Your answer mentions 1 Timothy 3:8 but I can,t see where you discuss the details to show how it supports your answer.
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 17:03
  • Good point. I added to clarify.
    – user35953
    Commented Jun 19, 2021 at 17:28

What did Paul mean by using διάκονος in Rom 16:1? Well, the broad "definitions" in either the Greek or English do not help much (see bottom of answer). I find the most valuable clue comes from Paul:

  1. Phoebe was a servant of the church in Cenchrea,
  2. Paul clearly trusted Phoebe, not just to deliver the letter, but possibly also to explain much of it to the Romans. This was apparently part of the duties of the courier (see "Letter writing in Greco-Roman antiquity", Stanley Stowers, 1986),
  3. Paul requested the Romans honour her by serving her needs as she saw fit.

We should also note that Paul described Jesus as a διάκονος in Rom 15:8, and he certainly wasn't meaning deacon as an ecclesiastical office bearer. Phoebe is in good company.

Regardless of Phoebe's formal office in Cenchrea, Paul had a very high regard and trust for her, and not simply because she may have been a patron. Especially given the very high importance of this letter (his apostolic message to Rome in lieu of a visit - in case he was detained or worse in Jerusalem), I would suggest Phoebe equals or exceeds the criteria in 1 Tim 3:8-10 ... "In the same way, deacons must be well respected and have integrity. They must not be heavy drinkers or dishonest with money. They must be committed to the mystery of the faith now revealed and must live with a clear conscience. Before they are appointed as deacons, let them be closely examined. If they pass the test, then let them serve as deacons." (NLT)

As for the NLT ... The translation "servant" is also uneasy, as it could legitimately be used to translate many Greek words (eg, λειτουργός, δοῦλος, οἰκέτης, μισθωτός), each with their own nuances in meaning. Perhaps, by using deacon, the NLT was seeking to give the well-informed English readers a clear clue of Paul's Greek. Also, they convey a sense that was a servant, but a highly respected servant, worthy of an officially appointed deacon.

. . .


A "διάκονος" in the Greek, as it applied to male or female, did cover a range of meanings. In the basic sense: assistant, servant, and even courier! "one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier" and/or "one who gets something done, at the behest of a superior, assistant to someone" (Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 230). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.).

The 7 men appointed to wait on tables in Acts 6 were appointed to διακονέω.

The English word "deacon" also carries a range, though not as broad. From the Cambridge Dictionary:

  1. In some churches, an official, either male or female, who is below a priest in rank and who performs some of the duties of a priest.
  2. In some churches, a lay person (= an ordinary person without religious training) who helps with the running and organization of the church.



The Greek noun, διάκονος (diakonos) is given this set of meanings by BDAG:

  1. one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier, eg, 2 Cor 6:4, 1 Thess 3:2, Tit 1:9, 2 Cor 11:23, Col 1:7, 1 Tim 4:6, Rom 13:4, Col 1:23, Eph 3:7, etc.
  2. one who gets something done at the behest of a supervisor, assistant, eg, Matt 20:26, 23:11, Mark 10:43, John 2:5, 9, 12:26, Gal 2:17, ... one identified for special ministerial service in a Christian community, eg, Phil 1:1, 1 Tim 3:8, 12, 4:6, Tit 1:9, etc.

The English "deacon" is nothing more than a transliteration of Greek word and used technical with a very narrow meaning is some traditions. This appears not to be the case in the original Greek where διάκονος (diakonos) is used more generically as above - a servant or assistant in the Christian community.


I'd encourage you to look at the context of Romans 16:1-2 and specifically at the clues surrounding the use of "diakonon" that give us extremely important context.

  1. Phoebe is referred to in verse 2 as a "prostatis;" someone who had benefitted Paul and many others. Most likely, this meant that she was a relatively wealthy and influential woman who funded/supported Paul's work. She quite possibly also housed the church in Cenchrea. She would not have been a servant in the sense used in the four gospels because then she wouldn't have had the wealth/means to do this.

  2. The verb "ousan," meaning literally, "being." The word is used elsewhere in relation to a church to denote "being" as in relation to a specific church role/ministry. In Acts 13 we are told that in the church and Antioch there were individuals "being/ousan" prophets and teachers.

  3. The context provided of the church of Cenchrae. Paul does use diakonos/diakonon frequently as a general title of ministry. In Paul's use, unlike the gospel/pre-resurrection use in the Bible, "diakonos" should almost always be translated as "servant (of the Gospel)" or "minister." However, he does use "diakonon" in relation to a specific church once outside of this passage, in greeting the "overseers" (episkopois) and "deacons" (diakonois) of the church in Philippi. That is roughly within the same general timeframe as his letter to the Romans and deacon then is clearly a formal role. If it was there, it probably is in this context with Phoebe too. If he was just using the word as a general descriptor of someone doing the work of the Gospel (as he does elsewhere), it wouldn't have been relevant for him to mention she was in this role at the church in Cenchrae specifically. She would have just been a "servant" or "minister" in general.

If you think any of this isn't a solid take, I encourage you to look at the Greek yourself. You can do so fairly easily (including dictionaries and word studies that will show the full range of use of the word) through Logos. I highly recommend it. Also, Strong's Greek at BibleHub.com is a great and free resource: https://biblehub.com/text/romans/16-1.htm

Also, don't take my word for this. Check out what Origen or Clement of Alexandria had to say about Phoebe. Both of those very early church fathers believed Phoebe was a deacon in this sense and said as much in their writings.

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