This Week's Focus Passage

Romans 16:1 ‘Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church that is at Cenchreae.’

This Week’s Focus Passage: Romans 16:1

‘Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church that is at Cenchreae.’


    William Hendriksen’s legacy is a very popular series of commentaries on a large number of the books of the New Testament. We may read from the end flap of a jacket from one of his commentaries, that which serves as a biographical sketch:

    “William Hendriksen received wide recognition as an outstanding Bible student, a consecrated preacher and lecturer, and an indefatigable author. He was a diligent scholar, an astute theologian, and a competent linguist: yet his writing and speaking always was marked by good organization, easily understood language and candor—characteristics appreciated by layman and scholar alike……He died in 1982, shortly after completing the commentary on Romans……Each section of comments is preceded by the author’s own translation, reproducing the true flavor of the original in good, idiomatic, modern English.” He rendered Rom. 16:1-2, thus:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is (also) a servant of the church at Cenchrea. I ask you to extend to her a welcome in the Lord that is worthy of the saints, and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a helper to many people and to me personally.

Hendriksen was a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, for ten years, and subsequently, he became the Professor of New Testament Literature at Calvin Seminary, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We wish to state some of these realities before offering our readers some thoughts upon the passage just cited above.

 Firstly, it should be stated, clearly, that this verse is the only place, in the Word of God, where the word deaconess may be discovered. Secondly, let it be noted that even this is only in those translations—which are a minority—where the Greek word diakonos, may be found translated ‘deacon,’ or, ‘deaconess.’ Let it also to be considered that there is nowhere, to be found in the New Testament, a Greek feminine of deacon. Of the multitude of English translations that may be consulted, out of more than sixty such, there are twenty-five, of that sixty, that render the word, diakonos, with the English, servant. There are five, among these English translations, that have translated diakonos, with deaconess, while some thirteen, have rendered diakonos, as deacon. Furthermore, there are five of these English versions that have chosen to render the Greek word with helper, and two, obviously Jewish influenced translations, that have shammash (Jewish for servant), while another five have offered the English word minister, or ministry, rather than either deacon, or deaconess, a couple of singular attempts have been, ministrant, servant-leader, even, shining minister. We repeat, only five have chosen to ignore the fact that there is no Greek feminine for diakonos, and these five have rendered the masculine diakonos, by deaconess. These five are, The Amplified Bible, and its cousin, The Amplified Bible (Classic Edition), along with, The J. B. Phillips New Testament, and followed by, The Revised Standard Version, with its cousin, The Revised Standard Version (Catholic Edition). A number among these are admittedly paraphrases, rather than translations. A popular example of this is Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible, which came out in the early nineteen-seventies, with its title page admitting that it was not a translation, but a paraphrase, by Kenneth Taylor. Taylor was charged by some critics with wresting the Scriptures so as to conform it to Arminian teachings about salvation. That may well be an astute observation; Taylor was, after all, a former student at Dallas Theological Seminary. The complaints of Arminian bias in the text from Christians became so numerous that it prompted the publisher, Zondervan, to commission the New Living Translation. The point that can be made here is the latent tendency, among scholars of all definitions, to impose their own thinking into what is supposed to be the Word of God translated into English. We have been given categories of translations. We may consider them as ‘stricter,’ or, ‘more liberal,’ but the two terms for the opposing tendencies are, dynamic equivalence, and, formal equivalence; dynamic equivalence intending to translate ‘dynamically,’ that is to say, rendering as sense-for-sense with readability in mind, while the formal equivalency method involves more a word for word in a more literal manner; in fact, it is often referred to as literal equivalence, rather than, formal equivalence.

The reality with regard to our focus passage, from Romans 16:1, is not truly an issue between dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence, but sadly, a case of imposition of thought. It cannot be imagined by anyone, can it, that deaconess is easier to read than servant? Or that minister would be easier to read than servant? The only viable translations are two; either servant, or deacon. But deacon is in the masculine, and Phoebe is a sister. Let us then embrace the option of ‘servant;’ Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church that is at Cenchreae. The very next verse, Romans 16:2, adds greater information and direction regarding this servant, Phoebe; where Paul has written: for she herself also hath been a helper of many, and of mine own self. Combining verses one and two, do we not arrive at an excellent term for Phoebe, from the pen of the apostle; servant-helper? Paul speaks elsewhere of ‘fellow-workers,’ Urbanus (Romans 16:9), Epaphrodites (Philippians 2:25), and Philemon (Philemon 1:1). 

It is admitted, virtually, on all sides, that there are occasions when it would be inappropriate for a male deacon to be attending to the needs of a woman in the congregation. Particularly, this is liable to be the case when the woman is suffering from some medical issue; serious illness or accident, perhaps. It is contended that this is the occasion when we must have a ‘deaconess’ to attend to the congregant. But we don’t find any such thing as a deaconess in the Word of God. We do find, however, in 1 Timothy 5:9-10, Paul talking about certain widows, in the following:

Let none be enrolled as a widow under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she hath brought up children, if she hath used hospitality to strangers, if she hath washed the saints’ feet, if she hath relieved the afflicted, if she hath diligently followed every good work.

These requirements actually seem to resemble the requisites for the elders and the deacons, in many ways, do they not? Is it, at least, possible that these are the women referred to by Paul in 3:11, when he wrote, Woman in like manner must be grave, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. And is it not equally possible that this is what Phoebe, of Romans 16:1-2, was? Could not Paul even refer to Phoebe as a fellow-servant—perhaps that is precisely what he intended when he wrote, I commend unto you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church at Cenchreae.  one that served the needs, under the men of the diaconate, needs of women that modesty would not permit the men themselves to deal with?

David Farmer, elder

Fellowship Bible Church


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