Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Deaconesses Then and Now

16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant [1] 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. (Romans 16:1-2 (ESV)
Yesterday, as I was translating Bo Giertz on this chapter I learned that there has been some scholarly debate surrounding this chapter. Evidently, many think that Paul meant to send this chapter as a stand-alone letter to the congregation in Ephesus. In pursuing this I learned of the fantastic work of Adolf Diessmann who actually saved Ephesus from complete destruction, but also was influential in distinguishing Biblical Greek from Attic Greek, noting that the Greek of the New Testament was a later form of the language in use throughout the empire in the first century. Somewhat like the difference between Elizabethan English and the English we use today. Of course, I knew there was this distinction, but I hadn’t realized this had only been discovered in the last two generations of theological scholarship. In any case, he maintains that the confusion probably set in when this was being copied from Paul’s draft book which would not have been kept as a scroll. Men in the first century would often keep a record of their correspondence so they could remember what they had written. This can be helpful when you receive a response. You can review what you wrote, and come to understand where any confusion was brought into the discussion. Often times at the end of life, men would also edit and publish these books as a “best of.” In any case, the scrolls would have to be cut into pages and then stapled together, and sometimes pieces of script would be lost. Bo didn’t go into much of the reason behind believing that this was meant to be sent to Ephesus rather than Rome.
But there is a lot more here than a debate as to how we received the transmission of the text in the first century. There is the text itself, and this wonderful woman that Paul commends to the church in Rome or the church in Ephesus, Phoebe. “She has been a patron of many and myself as well.”
The ESV says that she was a servant of the church in Cenchreae. The Greek word behind servant is deaconess. It could mean servant but it is different than the word doulos, slave, servant. And in the church, this word was used for people who seemed to hold an office in the church. Those offices that we often call elder today, though there was always a distinction made between the work that deacons (our elders today) did and that which the deaconesses did. But the deaconesses were awesome. When Paul starts talking about them his smile bleeds through his pen. He holds Phoebe in high regard. He expects the church to which she is going to hold her in high regard to. Let her work! Is really what he is saying. Take care of her, because she is going to take care of you. Paul says she was a patron. Which is a funny word to be used in respect to a woman.  The Greek really ought to be translated patroness, but it is somewhat like putting a feminine ending onto the word father. Patrons were people that held authority of the type which comes with the purse strings. It is a term used for wealthy individuals that support and help a person’s work. Phoebe would then have been quite an independent woman also.

Deaconesses are still quite awesome. Today we have an office of deaconess in the Missouri Synod, some wonderful women who aspire to take the path that Phoebe did. Some of them are the most theologically astute people I know, and remind me of another woman that will be mentioned shortly, Priscilla. They fill many different roles in the church and do a lot of work that might not be done otherwise. But there are many others that who could be said to be doing this deaconess work as it would have been understood in the first century. These would be the teachers, and D.C.E’s that we have in our synod, but more than that all those women in the church that just make sure Sunday School happens, that put on the dinners at funerals and who otherwise hold the church together. Throughout this chapter it, will be noticed just how much Paul appreciated this type of work that often goes unnoticed. He recognized just how important it truly is. It’s evangelism at its finest. 

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