I often read the Bible on my morning subway commute. If I can get a seat early on, then I have enough time to read a couple of chapters before I have to worry about transferring trains and getting back into the jostle of hurrying commuters. I've gotten into the habit of bringing my French Bible, partly because it gives me an excuse to practice my French, partly because some of my fellow Crown Heights commuters are Caribbean francophones and I like to feel that we have a point of connection, and partly because my French Bible is lightweight with a sturdy spine—well-suited to being slung into a backpack and carried around all day.
Anyway, the other day I was finishing Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and I came across a mind-opening section: Chapter 16. This chapter doesn't have much doctrine in it; it's instead Paul's sign-off to a long-ish list of Roman church members. Although I had read them in English, the first two verses in French left me amazed.
"Je vous recommande Phoebé, notre soeur, qui est diaconesse de l'Église de Cenchrées, afin que vous la receviez en notre Seigneur d'une manière digne des saints, et que vous l'assistiez dans les choses où elle aurait besoin de vous, car elle en a donné aide à plusieurs et à moi-même."
My own translation is this: "I commend to you Phoebe, our sister, who is deacon of the Church in Kekhries, that you receive her in our Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you assist her in the things that she may require of you, for she has helped myself and many." The word "diaconesse" was the bombshell. How had I missed the fact that there was a female deacon in the early church? Was this a priestly calling? I wondered why Phoebe hadn't come up as an example of female leadership before, until I went home and found that the KJV names her as a 'servant' rather than 'deacon,' — a word that disguises the attention Paul gives to her with the same kind of submissive roles that I'm used to seeing assigned to women. Ever the curious etymologist, I looked in my Greek New Testament. The word was 'diakonos', a word that is the root of our present day 'deacon' and can also be translated as 'servant' or 'minister'.
After my re-reading the verse in English and then in Greek, I realized that Phoebe may not have been blessing the holy communion or performing the kind of priesthood ordinances that we moderns might think of as a 'deacon's' job. And while I am excited by the possibility of Phoebe as a priesthood holder, my excitement doesn't depend on that. Maybe to explain it I'll share another story. When I was getting ready to enter the Missionary Training Center, I got a packet in the mail with visa information, including a "minister's license." It was in Italian, and standing in the kitchen my father and I excitedly pieced together a translation of it. This is a vivid memory for me as my first stab at the Italian language, but it was also the first time I realized that in the eyes of the Italian government, I would hold the same title as the young men missionaries. I wasn't just a "sister," I was a minister.
So now let me relate this back to the excitement of Phoebe's role. What is thrilling here is that she seems to have a distinct calling of administration and specific authority that is recognized and relied upon by Paul. So often, I feel that women are left in a mushy area of following their own spiritual promptings for the good of individual people, while their role as church officers (their callings) is downplayed. Thus their capacity to work and receive inspiration on behalf of a group is not given the chance to flourish. Even in callings that require women to work in an organizational and administrative capacity (and that's a lot of callings), I think women often feel like they're coming in the back door on inspiration — that it's not their right and responsibility to be leaders, or that because the buck always stops with the bishop (or EQ president, or stake president), their leadership doesn't really affect men at all (unless they're little boys in Primary, I guess).
So, to sum up, I love the Phoebe story because it gives two remedies for this obstacle to women's spiritual growth: First, it names Phoebe's calling. Whether we call her a minister or a deacon, she is something. She's not just a nice lady with a soft heart who follows her instincts of goodness; she has an identifiable role. Second, Paul, as a male leader, is pointed in his recognition of her influence on both the group ('plusieurs') and himself ('moi-meme'). She's not his mother or any kind of biological or legal family member. Sometimes I think men in our church are embarrassed or feel that it's not quite proper to praise the capacities of females outside their own families. Paul has no such qualms. Paul is unashamed to point out that the woman Phoebe has succored him — he feels no need to qualify her leadership role.
So, Phoebe's role is what I want for the women of the Church. I want women to know that they have specific and needed roles to fulfill, in addition to their roles within families. I also want them to recognize that they are leaders of men, not just of other women or children (whether in an official capacity in a particular church calling or simply in personal interactions). And finally, I want men to be as clearly supportive as Paul is — giving credit to women as leaders in their words and in practice.