Notes (NET Translation)
1 Now I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, 2 so that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and provide her with whatever help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many, including me.
The word word “now” (de) indicates this chapter is a continuation of the previous chapters. It was customary to commend the courier of the letter, especially if she was unknown to the audience (1 Macc 12:43; 2 Macc 9:25; Acts 18:27; 2 Cor 3:1; 4:2; 5:12; 10:12; 12:11; 3 John 9-10). Some of the ancient subscriptions to the letter explicitly say Phoebe is the bearer of the letter.
People who were traveling in an age with few public facilities often depended on the assistance of people they had never met; and this assistance was easier to be had if the traveler could produce a letter of introduction from someone known to the potential host/assistant. So Paul writes to “commend” Phoebe to the Roman Christians.1
Phoebe is a deacon (diakonos, “servant”). Paul uses the same term to describe both himself and others as servants of God (2 Cor 6:4), servants of the gospel (Eph 3:7; Col 1:23), servants of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6), servants in the Lord (Eph 6:21; Col 4:7), and servants of Christ (Phil 1:1; Col 1:7; 1 Tim 4:6). This is the only place he describes someone other than himself as a deacon/servant of the church (in Col 1:24-25 he says he became a servant of the body of Christ, the church). References to deacons in Paul’s letters provide little evidence for his understanding of their function. “But based partially on hints within the NT and partially on the later institution of the diaconate, it is likely that deacons were charged with visitation of the sick, poor relief, and perhaps financial oversight.”2
Cenchrea was one of the Aegean port towns of Corinth, located about ten kilometers to the southeast on the Saronic Gulf. The Roman Christians are instructed to greet Phoebe in a Christian manner, as one of the saints. In the ancient world a traveler needed to receive hospitality or she would have no standing in either law or custom. She is coming to Rome for some kind of work and the Roman Christians are to assist her. She is called a prostatis which suggests she is a patron/benefactor (“to many” no less).
A “patron” was one who came to the aid of others, especially foreigners, by providing housing and financial aid and by representing their interests before local authorities. Cenchreae’s status as a busy seaport would make it imperative that a Christian in its church take up this ministry on behalf of visiting Christians. Phoebe, then, was probably a woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the services of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and support. Paul now urges the Romans to reciprocate.3
We know of many women patrons, though they were a minority; the most common independent, property-owning women might be widows, but others could also fill this role. . . . Given the mercantile character of Cenchrea, she may be traveling to Rome on business; trade ties between Rome and Corinth were strong, and businesswomen did travel. Given Paul’s praise of her business skills, some suggest that he also hoped that she could raise support for his Spanish mission in Rome.4
Is Paul commending Phoebe because she held the office of deacon, or because she served in variety of unofficial ways in the church in Cenchreae? It is impossible to be sure, but for several reasons it is likely that she held the office of deacon. First, 1 Tim. 3:11 probably identifies women as deacons. Second, the designation “deacon of the church in Cenchreae” suggests that Phoebe served in this special capacity, for this is the only occasion in which the term διάκονος is linked with a particular local church. Third, the use of the masculine noun διάκονος also suggests that the office is intended. Of course, we need to beware of reading into early church offices the full-fledged development that was realized later. But women deacons were probably appointed early, especially because other women needed assistance from those of their own sex in visitation, baptism, and other matters.5
Keener, Craig S. Romans. New Covenant Commentary 6. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2009.
Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.
Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.
Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.
Myers Jr., Charles D. “Epistle to the Romans.” Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992. 5.828-829.
Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.
Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.