Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Was Phoebe a Pastor According to the Bible?

In this post I will address the question of whether Phoebe was a pastor.  I will also respond to a new article by Eddie Hyatt, “Did Paul have a Woman as His Pastor” which claims that Phoebe was a pastor. Hyatt is not the first to make this claim, and his arguments are very similar to previous arguments.

Let’s begin by looking at EVERYTHING the Bible says about Phoebe. This is not difficult, because all we know of her comes from two verses:

ESV Romans 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, 2 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.

The first thing I hope you notice is that these two verses say nothing about Phoebe being a pastor or performing those activities most closely related to being a pastor, namely teaching the whole church and overseeing the whole church.

You might wonder if this is a problem with the ESV translation.  It’s easy to find a verse in many translations on the internet, and I invite you to look up this verse in any translation.  I looked it up in these:  KJV, NKJV, ASV, CSB, NAS, NET, NIV, NLT, NRS, and RSV. None of these translations say anything about Phoebe being a pastor or teaching. This should immediately cause you to question Hyatt’s claim that Phoebe was a pastor.

Hyatt claims that the problem is that English translations (apparently, all of them) do a poor job translating the Greek and hide the fact that Phoebe was a pastor. Hyatt’s claim is difficult for the readers who have not studied Greek to assess.  No doubt many readers will be impressed by his claims since they can’t easily evaluate the evidence he provides.

Hyatt’s claim boils down to his analysis of two Greek words: diakonos (translated as either “servant” or “deacon/deaconess”) and prostatis (translated patron in the ESV and something like “benefactor”, “helper”, “a great help” or something similar in other translations, and translated “succourer” in KJV, which is a word we don’t regularly use now which means “benefactor”).


Like most words in most languages, diakonos, has what we might consider a basic, core meaning (some people call this the “literal meaning”).  The basic meaning of diakonos is “a person who renders helpful service” (from Friberg Lexicon).  This basic meaning is almost always present in some form.

But most words, including diakonos, can have several different specific meanings.  Which specific meaning a word has must be determined from the context, and sometimes the context does not provide enough detail to know precisely which meaning is intended.

The word diakonos appears either 29 or 30 times in the Greek New Testment (in 1 Thes 3:2 some Greek manuscripts have diakonos and some have sunergos, which means “coworker”).

The word is used in the following ways:

1.  Diakonos is used by Jesus several times to teach His disciples that they should have a servant attitude.  This teaching obviously applies to all Christians and not only to pastors. See Matthew 20:26, Matthew 23:11, Mark 9:35, and Mark 10:43.

2. Diakonos is sometimes used to describe regular “servants”, either of a king or in a household.  See Matthew 22:13, John 2:5, and John 2:9.

3.  Diakonos is used twice in Romans 13:4 to refer to government officials.

4.  Diakonos is used by Jesus in John 12:26 to refer to anyone who is following Him. No one I know of would want to limit this teaching to the Apostles, or to only pastors or only to people with the gift of teaching. Here, we have the broad meaning of diakonos, namely to render helpful service to someone.

5.  The word diakonos is twice used to refer to Jesus (Romans 15:8 and Galatians 2:17). These uses also fit the general meaning of rendering service to someone or something, or in the case of Galatians 2:17, not rending such service.

6.  Paul uses the word diakonos to refer to himself and to gospel coworkers who worked with him.  In all cases, some type of service is being rendered.  Sometimes, the type of service rendered specifically includes proclaiming the gospel (see 1 Corinthians 3:5, Ephesians 3:7, Colossians 1:23, and Colossians 1:25).  This would likely be true also of Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:6 and of Epaphras  (Colossians 1:7). However, in some cases the type of service rendered is not specified, and it is probably best to understand it to include all of the different ways in which Paul and his coworkers were serving God (see 2 Corinthians 6:4 and Philippians 1:1)

7.  Diakonos is also used to refer to servants of Satan (2 Corinthians 11:15).

8.  Finally, diakonos is used three times to refer to the church office of deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8 and 1 Timothy 3:12).  In each case, this office is clearly distinct from the office of elder.

This may seem complex, but it’s not.  In every case, the person who is a diakonos is rendering some type of service to another person or a cause.  Sometimes the context makes it clear what type of service is being rendered.  Other times there is not enough context and we only know it refers in general to rendering service.

In the case of Phoebe in Romans 16:1, do we know what type of service was being rendered?  The context rules out meanings #2 (a regular household servant), #3 (a government official), #5 (referring to Jesus as serving), and #7 (a servant of Satan).

The following possibilities are left:
#1  A person with a servant’s heart who is constantly serving people as Jesus directed.
#4  Very similar to #1, referring to anyone who is following Jesus and serving Him in any one of many different ways.
#6  A person who is serving others by preaching the gospel and teaching them God’s truth.
#8  A person who holds the office of deacon in the church

First, let’s consider the possibility that Paul was referring to Phoebe as someone who held the office of deacon.  Would that mean that she was a pastor or that she was like a pastor and that she taught men in the church?  No.  In all three passages where diakonos refers to the office of deacon, this office is differentiated from the office of elder.  In the New Testament, the terms “elder”, “overseer”, and “pastor” all refer to the same group of people.  It is these people who are given the responsibility to teach and exercise authority over the church.  Deacons are not given a teaching role.  Paul says that an elder must be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2).  Of course, some deacons are also teachers, but being a teacher is not part of the office of deacon in the New Testament. So if Paul was referring to Phoebe as someone who held the office of deacon this would actually completely undercut Hyatt’s claim.

Hyatt insists that Paul was applying option #6 to Phoebe. But his arguments do not show why Paul could not have been simple referring to Phoebe as a person with a servant’s heart who served the church in various unspecified ways (meanings #1 and #4) or as a deaconess whose role then would not have been the same as an elder/pastor.

In fact, some of Hyatt’s argumentation is misleading and just plain factually wrong.  He states:

Indeed, diakonos is translated as "minister" in 23 places where it is used of men, including Paul, Barnabas and Apollos (1 Cor. 3:4). In this one place where it is used of a woman, these same translators chose to use the word "servant," a clear example of their bias (Hyatt, Paul, Women and Church, 26).

This argument makes it sound like diakonos is almost always used in the New Testament to refer to a “minister”, which in English we usually think of as being the same thing as a pastor.  The first problem is that I can’t find any English translation where diakonos is translanted “minister” 23 times.  Here’s what I found:

KJV       20x
ASV      19x
NIV      4x
ESV      8x

I might have miscounted, but I was especially careful with the KJV since it has the highest count. If anyone can find a translation of the New Testament where diakonos is translated “minister” 23 times, please tell me. Beyond the counting problem, there is a second problem.  Hyatt neglects to inform his readers that old translations like the KJV and ASV which do frequently translate diakonos as “minister” are sometimes using that word in a way which has NOTHING to do with being a pastor.  These translations use “minister” to refer to government officials in Romans 13:4. Most of Hyatt’s readers aren’t going to do the careful research and checking which I have done (which is part of the reason I’m sharing this, with the prayerful hope that it will help).

The bottom line is that the word diakonos does not mean that Phoebe was a pastor.

Now let’s consider the next word which Hyatt focuses on:


Prostatis is used only once in the Bible, here in Romans 16:2.  This makes it more difficult to determine the precise meaning.  Hyatt claims that the word means someone who is “set over” someone or who “stands before someone”.

First, as we noted above, no Bible translation that I know of uses a definition that is even close to Hyatt’s.  Based on data from outside the Bible, all English Bible translators felt the best translation was something like “patron”, “benefactor”, or “helper”.

What evidence does Hyatt give for his unusual interpretation of prostatis?

He notes that Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon refers to “a woman set over others”.  However, Thayer’s lexicon goes on to explain in what specific way Phoebe was “set over”: “caring for the affairs of others and aiding them with her resources”. This is not the same thing as being a pastor and teaching men!

Also, BDAG and several newer Lexicons which are widely used by evangelical Bible scholars and pastors all lack any hint of prostatis meaning “set over” and all give definitions inconsistent with Hyatt’s claim that Phoebe was a pastor:

BDAG:  “protectress, patroness, helper”

Friberg Lexicon:  “a woman who renders assistance from her resources”

Luow-Nida:  “a woman who is active in helping - 'helper, patroness’”

Hyatt then offers this explanation:

These definitions are correct for prostatis is made up of the prefix pro, meaning "before," and "istemi," meaning "to stand." It, therefore, literally means "to stand before" and identifies Phoebe as a leader with the qualities one would expect in a modern-day pastor (Hyatt, Paul, Women and Church, 28)

Here, Hyatt’s analysis is embarrassingly bad.  You cannot simply take the two parts of a compound word and assume that if you add them up you get the meaning of the compound.  Sometimes this works, but often it does not.  Here are some examples, using Hyatt’s flawed method:

back + bite = backbite = to bite someone’s back

cell + phone = cellphone = a phone made of cell’s or perhaps a phone used or found in a prison cell

moon + shine = moonshine = the glowing light from the moon (why is this illegal?)

play + boy = playboy = a boy who is playing (sounds innocent, but do you want your daughter to marry one?)

straw + berries = strawberries = berries made from straw (yuck!)

butter + fly = butterfly = butter that your mom throws at you? or a fly made from butter?

The point is that while compound words often do have a fairly clear relationship to the meaning of their constituent parts, you cannot simply put the parts together and assume you have the right definition.  It doesn’t work in English and it doesn’t work in Greek.  Hyatt is just plain wrong.

The Rest of the Bible

I interpret Paul’s comments about Phoebe as meaning this: she was a wonderful woman with a servant’s heart who served the church in various ways and who helped support (perhaps financially) Paul and others and therefore was deserving of respect and help.  This would make Phoebe similar to the women who helped support Jesus and His Disciples:

NIV Luke 8:1b The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

If Hyatt’s interpretation is correct, than Phoebe would be violating Paul’s own standard of not allowing a woman to teach men in the church (1 Timothy 2:12). She would also be the only exception to the consistent example of the whole Bible where there are no examples of women teaching the gathered people of God (see my blog post on this).

Hyatt’s arguments are not new.  Nearly identical arguments were well refuted by Wayne Grudem in 2004. The best resource for arguments related to what the Bible teaches about women pastors is still Wayne Grudem’s Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth.


In the case of Romans 16:1-2, you can trust the English translations of your Bible.  Paul says nothing about Phoebe being a pastor.

None of this distracts from what Paul does say about Phoebe.  She is a wonderful servant of God’s people, as are many women I know today.

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .

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