The Businesswoman Phoebe (Romans 16:1-2)
The apostle Paul left Athens and moved on to Corinth. This city was radically different from Athens. Located on the narrow neck of land joining a large southern peninsula to the mainland of Greece, Corinth had two ports: one on the west coast on the Adriatic Sea and one on the east coast on the Saronic Gulf. A Roman city (like Philippi) in Greece, it was a bustling commercial city with a very diverse ethnic population and a plethora of temples to every known god or goddess (including Egyptian deities). Once in Corinth Paul settled down for eighteen months, preaching and starting new Christian churches.
It’s there that we meet Phoebe. While in Corinth Paul had written a long letter to the Christians in the city of Rome, and he needed someone to carry the letter to them. It appears that Phoebe traveled for business purposes and offered to take the letter on her next trip to Rome. So we meet her in Paul’s letter where he describes her to the Christians in Rome:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in 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. (Romans 16:1-2)
Note the two words Paul used to describe her. In the church she was, first, a deacon, a term Paul uses for only five people in his letters: himself, Tychicus, Epaphras, Timothy, and Phoebe. Whatever he and the other three men were doing as deacons, we can assume that Phoebe was also doing in the churches.
But Paul then uses a second word to describe her. Our translation (NRSV) calls her a “benefactor,” but the Greek word in Paul’s letter was prostatis. According to the lexicographer Thayer, the first meaning of that word was “a woman set over others.” The Greek word was in the feminine form of the masculine word prostates, usually translated leader. It referred to “one who preaches, teaches, and presides at the Lord’s Table.” Obviously Phoebe, the business woman was more than merely a benefactor. She was a leader of the church in Cenchreae.
Like the businesswoman Lydia, Phoebe used her wealth and influence to grow the Christian church. She even leveraged a business trip to spread the gospel. But she didn’t just carry a man’s message. Phoebe was a church leader in her own right. Today, women are often denied equal responsibility both in businesses and in churches. However, this was not the precedent set by the earliest Christian churches.