Their names may seem unfamiliar and their numbers few compared with the celebrated men of the New Testament. But search the Scriptures carefully, and you will find them: Phoebe, Prisca, Junia, and other strong women of faith who—like the apostles Peter and Paul—spread the Gospel and led communities of believers in the earliest days of the Christian church.
Yet unlike their male counterparts, whose words and deeds were carefully preserved in the Christian canon, relatively little is remembered of these early female leaders. Then, as now, it seems, the role of women in the church was a controversial subject. Given the patriarchal culture from which Christianity and its Scriptures sprang, and the male-dominated church hierarchy that eventually emerged, some modern scholars find it remarkable that their memory has survived at all.
Ironically, it is mainly in the writings of Paul—who was no flaming egalitarian on gender issues—that we learn of these influential Christian women. In the final chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, he includes them in a list of associates to whom he sends his greetings. Although the information he conveys is indirect and scanty, scholars say it reveals important clues to the social status and missionary activity of women in the early church.
"I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well."
Such a glowing recommendation from the missionary apostle is a clear indication of the high esteem—and, as some scholars argue, the high position—this gentile woman held in the nascent Christian community.
Phoebe is often portrayed as a wealthy, independent woman, probably a widow, who traveled widely on personal business but most likely also in her work as a leader of the church at Cenchreae, a busy seaport east of Corinth. Because she is named first in Paul's list of greetings, many scholars assume she was the bearer of Paul's letter and had traveled to Rome perhaps to begin to arrange for the apostle's planned missionary journey to Spain.
The titles Paul used in the original Greek to describe her are telling: adelphe, or "sister," indicating he considered her a co-worker in the faith; diakonos, or "deacon," the same title Paul applied to himself and other men engaged in preaching and teaching; and prostatis, often translated as "patron" or "benefactor," though it may also mean a presiding officer, guardian, or leader.
As a woman of means, scholars say, Phoebe probably owned a home large enough to accommodate Christian gatherings. It is likely, therefore, that she was the patron and leader of a house church and perhaps offered hospitality and financial support to traveling Christians, including Paul. That would help explain why Paul felt so indebted to her.
Some commentators have attempted to cast Phoebe in a more limited and traditionally feminine role, perhaps as a minister to women only. Some English Bible translations call her "deaconess" or simply a "servant." But as Prof. Jouette Bassler of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University points out, the word Paul uses (diakonos) has "no gender distinctions" and "clearly points to a leadership role over the whole church, not just part of it...Phoebe is thus a church official, a minister of the church in Cenchreae."