Phoebe -- Ordained Deacon or Willing Servant?

As promised, here is my post on Phoebe.  It is long, so please bear with me.  Hopefully, it will help those who are confused on this matter.  However, I am not naive enough to think this will change many minds. 

Lines have been drawn, emotions are mixed with ones views, and the battle lines in the church are firm on both sides.  It has become a big mess in the church.  This non-salvational matter has been elevated to unnecessary and ridiculous proportions, yet it has become necessary to address it as it is causing division, disdain between SDA brethren and it is a huge distraction from giving the Three Angels Messages unfiltered to the world.  It is a crying shame that we lukewarm SDAs have wasted millions of dollars and three decades over this matter which was supposed to be a minor issue.  It's too bad the damage won’t be undone until the shaking purifies us.  This is a rebuke to both sides who are guilty of this collective neglect of the Three Angels Messages.

Was Phoebe an Ordained Deacon or a Willing Servant?

Now to the issue at hand.  Was Phoebe in the office of deacon or was she just a servant of the church like we all are a servant of the church?  The Greek word for servant is “diakonos” or deacon, in English.   Please note that this is my heartfelt view and response on this matter motivated by my desire to be as faithful to Scripture as possible.  It has nothing to do with being conservative or liberal (I hate those labels), nor with discriminating against women, though some of you will never believe it.  Let us begin our examination.

My good SDA Brother John, and others quote the only reference where Ellen White used the word “deaconess”, and from this make the wrong assumption that the office of deacon is equal to the office of deaconess.  They usually quote this part of the statement found in Manuscript Releases, volume 21, pp. 97, 98 where Ellen G. White tells A. T. Jones not to minister to the personal needs of women but that this is reserved exclusively for the deaconess:

“When a woman comes to you with her troubles, tell her plainly to go to her sisters, to tell her troubles to the deaconesses of the church.”

When you quote the rest of this statement, you see a clear distinction of duties and responsibilities that the deaconess has that the deacon CAN’T do.  For starters, the deacon (and I mean exclusively a male by this word) cannot do what the deaconess does (minister to the women) and the deaconess cannot minister to the men.  Let’s see the whole context of that statement where is exactly the case:

“You are not to set such an example that women will feel at liberty to tell you the grievances of their home life, and to draw upon your sympathies. When a woman comes to you with her troubles, TELL HER PLAINLY TO GO TO HER SISTERS, TO TELL HER TROUBLES TO THE DEACONESSES OF THE CHURCH. Tell her that she is out of place in opening her troubles to any man, for men are easily beguiled and tempted. Tell the one who has thrown her case upon you that GOD HAS NOT PLACED THIS BURDEN UPON ANY MAN. You are not wise to take these burdens upon yourself. IT IS NOT YOUR APPOINTED WORK.”
—Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, volume 21, pp. 97, 98

So, quoting and taking ALL of the Ellen White statement let’s us see clearly that the offices of deacon and deaconess are NOT the same or equal because they have different duties to different people within the church.  It is the appointed work of deaconesses to minister to the needs of the women.  This is not appointed to the deacon (exclusively male).  Conversely, it is the appointed work of deacons to minister to the personal needs of the men, not the deaconess.  This distinction is clear.  Different tasks means a different office.

This makes it certain that Phoebe was not in the office of deacon (by this word, I mean only a male as deaconess can only be a female).  This also make certain that the phrase “husband of one wife” applies only to married men with one wife in 1 Timothy 3:12.  A new office had to be created for the females only for the reasons Ellen White listed.

John asked me, “Can you continue to maintain that the deacon must be the husband of one wife when EGW tells women to go to the deaconesses?  Can you still maintain the husband of one wife argument when EGW rejects it by affirming women deacons?”

In these questions you can see that John wrongly assumes that the office of deacon is the same as the office of deaconess.  Others have stated this same thought.

So when John asked me “Can you continue to maintain that the deacon must be the husband of one wife when EGW tells women to go to the deaconesses?” I answer an unequivocal and firm YES - because deacon and deaconess are NOT the same offices.  Women exclusively are deaconesses, and men are exclusively in the office of deacon.

We never say men are male deaconesses, which is a ridiculous idea.  The same is true for saying women are female deacons.  No!  They are deacons (only married men with one wife) and deaconesses (women only).  Different offices with a different appointed work as Ellen white said.  It is therefore wrong to say these have the same tasks as pro-WO individuals often say and therefore wrong to make or assume these offices as equivalent.  This is why the church elects to office a head deacon and a head deaconess. We have never had a deacon who is a deaconess and we never had a deaconess who is a deacon.  No such equivalence officially exists anywhere in our church.  Different offices require different qualified individuals to fill them.  No man can be elected as a deaconess and no woman can be elected as a deacon in our SDA church.  It is impossible for the above reasons and hence a distinctive difference between the two offices.

So, to John's second question asked to me, “Can you still maintain the husband of one wife argument when EGW rejects it by affirming women deacons?”  This question is a bad question ASSUMING that Ellen White rejects the “husband of one wife”argument.  She does not, but her words are clear that deacon and deaconess are offices with different responsibilities and tasks in which men can’t perform (like ministering personally to women the way A.T. Jones did, etc) and vice versa.

The burden is on proponents of women’s ordination to show in Scripture or SOP where it is clearly stated in context that the offices of deacon and deaconess are the same or equal in function or responsibilities.  This can’t be done, as Ellen White made it clear that deaconesses have a distinct work from deacons.

Now, let’s get back to Romans 16 and look at the context a little more than is commonly done here.  We do not see anywhere in the chapter the idea of the OFFICE of deacon being alluded to (keep in mind that the Greek word diakonos can mean either one in the office of deacon or servant, so the immediate context must tell us what is being referred to).  To make this point even stronger, immediately in the same context in the next verse, Pheobe is called a “succourer”, which is a general helper in Greek (the Greek word is ‘Prostatis’).

Let’s see this in immediate context with the word diakonos/deacon:

Romans 16:1-3:
1 ¶ I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a SERVANT (deacon/diakonos) of the church which is at Cenchrea:
2 That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a SUCCOURER (Greek is ‘prostatis’) of many, and of myself also.
3 ¶ Greet Priscilla and Aquila my HELPERS in Christ Jesus:

Since text explains text, we have here in immediate context the words “servant/diakonos”, “succourer/prostatis” and helper all in context.  Let’s look at what phoebe also is in connection with deacon/diakonos- a succourer.  What is the Greek definition of this word?  It is the only verse in Scripture using this word (Romans 16:2), so we have to take the definition as there are no other scriptural uses.  Here are the definitions:

STRONGS NT 4368: προστάτις
προστάτις, προστατιδος, ἡ (feminine of the noun προστάτης, from προΐστημι); 
a. properly, a woman set over others. 
b. a female guardian, protectress, patroness, caring for the affairs of others and AIDING THEM WITH her resources (A. V. succourer): Romans 16:2; cf. Passow on the word and under προστάτης at the end; (Schürer, Die Gemeindeverfassung der Juden in Rom, as above with (Leip. 1879), p. 31; Heinrici, Die Christengemeinde Korinths, in Hilgenfeld's Zeitschr. for 1876, p. 517f).
THAYER’S GREEK LEXICON, Electronic Database.
Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2006, 2011 by Biblesoft, Inc.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Source: Strong’s Concordance and Thayers Lexicon.…

Now clearly, the first definition doesn’t apply because the last part of Romans 16:2 says “... for she (Phoebe) hath been a SUCCOURER (Greek is ‘prostatis’) of many, and of myself also.  Are we to say that Phoebe was set over Paul an Apostle?  No way.  She was not in charge of Paul or overseeing Paul. That would be impossible as Paul was an apostle.

So the second definition is the only possibility, in that Phoebe was a helper, one who cared for the affairs of others.  This is not describing in the definition one in any office and this is in direct CONTEXT WITH PHOEBE BEING A SERVANT!!  Vines expository dictionary makes it even clearer that Phoebe the helper was doing this but no office is part of this word:

“Prostatis [‘helper’] was the title of a citizen in Athens, who had the responsibility of seeing to the welfare of resident aliens who were without civic rights.  Among the Jews it signified a wealthy patron of the community.”
—Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, ‘prostatis’ 1985, omas Nelson Publishers.

So being that this word succourer/helper/prostatis is in direct context with Phoebe being a servant/deacon, the evidence we have is that she was not in the office of deacon but was a servant/helper of the church like we all are in different ways.  This is more consistent in what we today call a deaconess making it a different office from deacon.

The idea Phoebe being a helper is in these words of Ellen White:

“Phoebe entertained the apostle, and she was in a marked manner an entertainer of strangers who needed care. Her exam- ple should be followed by the churches of today.”
—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, volume 6, p. 343

Even stronger to the point is that in this immediate context, Aquila and Priscilla are ALSO said to be helpers!!  The context is clear that these are not the office of deacon, but helpers who helped Paul.

So there is no text within the context of Phoebe stating anything about the office of deacon in connection with her.  The lexicons, the Greek, Ellen White and all else related make it clear she was a helper along with Priscilla and Aquila.  This task of helper--in the immediate context--is indication that the servant/diakonos Phebe was just that, but not in the office of deacon.  If not, then where are the Scriptures or words in the context which direct us to choose the definition “office of deacon” for diakonos in Phoebe’s case?

Where is this concept also in SOP about Phoebe?  Nowhere.  It is a huge leap of logic to suggest so in the face of Scripture.  She is disqualified from being in the office of deacon as she isn’t the husband of one wife.  She would qualify more for what we today call a deaconess, which isn’t a deacon.  A male deaconess is oxymoronic just like a female deacon is.  These are two different offices with different appointed work as the Bible and SOP made clear.


Using text to explain text, especially in the immediate context, Romans 16:2,3 in the words “succourer” (describing Phoebe) and “helper” (describing Priscilla and Aquila) tell us what type of servant/diakonos/deacon that Phoebe was -- a servant or helper in the general sense of the term since the other two words have no office in mind or definition.  Also, the texts say nothing of an office in connection with Phoebe like it does elsewhere.  We have no text or word with the office of deacon in mind here.

To use Phoebe as evidence that a woman can be in the office of deacon is to assume that the office of deacon is equal to being a deaconess, and that the responsibilities are more or less the same.  This clearly invalidates the leap of logic and the assumptions made by our pro WO brethren that Phoebe’s case shows that “the husband of one wife” includes a woman.  This in turn invalidates the false interpretation that “husband of one wife” means a man or a woman - if married - has one spouse (no scripture exists with this type of explanation anywhere).  The Greek of that phrase is exclusively a male who has one female wife.  There is no wiggle room in the Greek for anything else.  Therefore the leap in logic to read into this a woman being in the office of pastor and elder is scripturally invalid also.

So all the references to deaconesses in SOP (only one) and the references in Adventist history up until now of deaconesses is not evidence for the oxymoron of female deacons, as no female ever was elected as a deacon.  That is exclusively for men who are the husbands of one wife.  In the same way, male deaconesses is an oxymoron.  I have always said that if one means that a woman is a deacon (when using the term deaconess) the church should never do this. Thankfully it never has.

The above is why the SDA church from its inception until now has held this view:

In the Question Corner in January 24, 1895, Signs of the Times. A reader asks the editors: “Should women be elected to offices in the church when there are enough brethren?”
The response of the editors was unequivocal: “If by this is meant the office of elder, we should say at once, No. But there are offices in the church which women can fill acceptably, and often times there are found sisters in the church who are better qualified for this than brethren, such offices, for instance as church clerk, treasurer, librarian of the tract society, etc., as well as the office of deaconess, ASSISTING THE DEACONS in looking after the poor, and in doing such other duties as would naturally fall to their lot. e qualifications for church elder are set forth in 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and in Titus 1:7-9. We do not believe that it is in God’s plan to give to women the ordained offices of the church (elder, pastor, deacon). By this we do not mean to depreciate their labors, service, or devotion. The sphere of woman is equal to that of man. She was made a help meet, or fit, for man, but that does not mean that her sphere [or role] is identical to that of man’s. The interests of the church and the world generally would be better served if THE DISTINCTIONS given in God’s word were regarded.” Signs of the Times, “Question Corner # 176: Who Should Be Church O cers?” January 24, 1895.

The church then, Scriptures and SOP all agree that the duties and therefore offices of deacon and deaconess are different.  Today, we never have female deacons because they are not found in the early church.  We never elect females to the office of deacon.  They are elected as deaconesses.  There is no such thing as a female deacon.  This is a made up construct.  Men are never elected as deaconesses. There are no such things as a male deaconess. Can you imagine the confusion this would cause to eliminate the distinctions of these offices?

That’s why they are not the same and deacon is not equivalent to deaconess.  


David O. Weithers attended Greater New York Academy, Studied Computer Engineering Technology at Andrews University, and lives in New York, New York.